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Resolve to network in the new year

A word from the BBB

As the Oregon spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau, my new position with the organization requires that I talk to people — in person. The only issue with this is I don’t go out of my way to seek information. By “out of my way” I mean outside. Is there really a need anymore? All it takes is a phone and a twitter account and I can know minute by minute what’s happening up the street or in Kazakhstan.

The effect of my handheld devices has caused my face-to-face communication skills to rust and, with various online reports supporting social relationships as a means to longevity, I decided I couldn’t let verbal dexterity go the way of the handwritten note. Apparently a long life depends on it.

My first, and rather recent, assignment was to attend an evening Portland Business Alliance network event. I had no agenda other than to speak with people. Even the basis for conversation was vague in my mind, maybe answer some questions about the BBB and ask a few of my own about the career path of other attendees.

The reasons for people in business to network vary greatly. If you need a reason, there are tons of resources that will provide them for you. A Linkedin article recommends networking to “widen your circle of influence.”

Tom Farley, president of the New York Stock Exchange says in an article for Forbes that networking is how you will find the “advice you need to propel your career forward.”

If you are a networking novice, like me, you may know the anxiety that comes with walking into this setting of strangers mingling. A buzz of chatter that you are not yet participating in can be a bit scary, especially with the pressure of securing the power and influence that’s meant to come to you as a result of being there. Perhaps you have yet to experience it, but if you are considering a networking event for the first time this year, here are some pointers to ease your foot (followed by the other foot and deep breath) in the door:

Have a plan. I recommend for beginners the plan be as simple as ‘smile.’ Sip beverage. Talk. Talk about anything; the origin of name written on the “Hello” sticker stuck to someone’s lapel. Whether they know the guest speaker personally? That you love their hair that particular shade of green. Talk to three people. Three is the magic number. Talk to only one all evening and you could be mistaken for a stage-five clinger. Talking to only two people is cheating since this can be easily achieved at the same time, the three of you all in one conversation. Three means that you’ve successfully stepped outside of your comfort zone and consciously made connections.

Universal awkwardness. Expect it and making use of it is easier than you think. Because everyone is supposed to be talking to one another, there is a collective fear about how to accomplish this while appearing natural. This fear yields compassion. Think about a plane, high in the sky, during heavy turbulence, total strangers have been known to hold hands in this tense situation. Similarly, networking has the ability to bring the best and most sensitive version of us to the forefront. Together we take on the responsibility to remove the tension from the room by being friendly.

Fashion sense. You will be told you have it. Just accept and believe the compliments. Compliments on articles of clothing are a surefire ice breaker and a popular one. Use them to strike up a conversation. This works best when they are sincere. Remember to dress to impress as well. It will be easier for others to introduce themselves by commenting on an eye catching accessory you’re wearing.

Do a favor. That is, only if you genuinely want to and don’t expect one in return. I happened to forward the name and website of a photographer I met at a network event over to a shop owner who keeps art on rotation in her store. I have no idea of the result of sharing the contact, but am happy to have contributed to fostering community partnerships.

Online vs. in person

Not everyone loves networking or has a positive experience with it.

“(Avoid) awkwardly shifting around a conference room with uncomfortable name tags asking strangers if there are any job openings,” says Susan Ricker for Career Builder, “the answers lie online.”

Limited online marketing is what Portland Night Market organizer Emma Pelett, attributes the success of her November event to. “The event was shared only on Facebook and Do503.com,” said Pelett, who was happy with the attendance of 11,000 people for the two-day event. The expected turnout was 2,500.

Both methods of connecting have merit. Depending on your goals, social media can help garner the attention of a mass of people over a brief period of time in a way that face to face conversations cannot. But if it’s a new job you are after or a new client, there is a great deal of value in seeing and being seen in person. I would not have attempted to create a connection between retail store owner and artist had I not gone outside and spoken to these entrepreneurs face to face. The reason was no more complex than my liking their work and their taking the time to tell me about it. And while online networking may remove the “awkward shifting,” in person networking can make us a little braver, leading us to be a little better and more confident. Last I checked, confidence is a key component of effective leadership. If we are in business, isn’t that where we’d all like to be?

Michelle Shaffer is the Oregon Regional Manager for the Better Business Bureau.