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How To Network Like You Actually Know What You’re Doing

Tips on schmoozing with the best of them, from a former White House insider.

How To Network Like You Actually Know What You’re Doing
[Photo: Mark R. Thomas/Getty Images]

Oprah did it, and you can do it, too. It’s time to leave the comfort of your corner suite, cubicle, garage, coffee shop, or home office, get out into the world, and network.

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A local TV host of AM Chicago in the mid 1980s, Oprah went on a date with the late, great film critic Roger Ebert at a Hamburger Hamlet and made the most important professional decision of her life.

She had two opportunities for syndication in front of her and didn’t know which way to go. Should she play it safe and go for the ABC deal offering to place her show on ABC owned-and-operated stations around the country? Or, should she go with King World, which would try to sell her show to every market in the country on a variety of affiliates? After Roger made a napkin list of pros and cons right there at the table, Oprah decided to take the King World deal and the rest is history.

Oprah wasn’t at a studio lot or in a boardroom when it came to what could arguably be the most important decision of her life. She was sharing food and conversation in a social setting. We all do it. Why not do it better?

If I learned anything while I was at the White House for eight years during the Clinton Administration, it was that any social engagement is an opportunity to find new relationships that can turn into partnerships and ideas to turn into reality. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, captain of industry, or recent college graduate, each day is an opportunity to grow and build your personal brand through networking. Do it well and with these five tips:

1. Ask Yourself, “Is This Cocktail Talk Or My Cocktail Talking?”

Office jokes the day after a party aren’t funny if you can’t remember them. If having a drink makes you feel more relaxed, have one. Just be wary of having three, four, or more. Alternate with water or ask the bartender to go light after your first. We all know this, but it’s amazing how often we can simply forget or get nervous and reach for another full glass. A boss, colleague, or venture capitalist is going to take how you behave outside of the office into consideration for anything inside as well.

2. Always Come Prepared

Business cards are cheap to make, so have them and use them. It doesn’t matter how tech-savvy you are and who you’re trying to impress by bumping contacts with your phone–the transaction of a business-card exchange is tangible and the first of hopefully many future transactions.

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3. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Whether you’re with potential clients, colleagues, or friends, circulate and meet others outside your immediate circles. You never know when the next conversation will be the one that will change your life.

First Lady Jackie Kennedy had a rule at the White House: Invited guests could bring a plus-one, but they had to sit at different tables during dinner. This was her way to entice conversation.

Introducing different personalities to your group will make conversations more eventful, and others will surely appreciate having the chance to expand their social horizons as well.

4. Know Before You Go

There is a fine line between networking and stalking, but research before any event is a must. When you RSVP for an event, ask who else is attending or look at the email list on the e-vite and use that to your advantage. Run their names through Facebook and see what they are posting, LinkedIn to see their professional/educational history, Twitter to see what’s trending on their feed, or Pinterest to see what they are passionate about.

You can make a connection with someone before you even meet that will result in great conversation. Just remember to make these connections grow organically through a conversation–you don’t want to scare a stranger by asking about their three children by name.

5. Listen

Larry King once said, “I never learned anything while I was talking,” and he was right! It’s better to impress someone by showing interest in them than to talk too much about yourself. This is your opportunity to gather information and find where you can help them or connect on a project yourself. At the end of the day you can empower others just by listening to them–and that can be a gift in itself.

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Follow these five steps as your foundation and your network will grow as fast as your business opportunities. It doesn’t matter if your name is in lights or in 12-point type–you’ll make an impression, and grow yourself and your business at the same time if you just start by getting outside of your office!

Laura Schwartz is the former White House director of Events (under the Clinton Administration) and quickly climbed her way up the ranks as staff assistant, Midwest press secretary, the director of Television and ultimately the White House director of Events. Currently, Laura is an author, board member of Clean the World Organization, the American Heart Association, and Common Threads as well as an active keynote speaker represented by Eagles Talent Speakers Bureau.

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