Business Networking Without Looking Desperate: 5 Rules

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Last Updated Apr 27, 2010 9:10 AM EDT

Trying to squeeze business opportunity out of this economy is an arduous task at best. And as job numbers remain shakier than the Pacific Rim, the term "it's who you know" is more relevant than ever for career development.

“Networking is something you should continually be doing,” says Ronn Torossian, CEO of the New York City-based 5W Public Relations firm. “It’s kind of like dating. Until you’re married, you always have to be dating. And when you’re married, you’re working on your relationship.”

That means networking can’t be something you put on a to-do list and check off once a month, and it needn’t be scheduled. “I was sitting next to this woman while having a pedicure and we started talking,” recalls Ross Ellis, CEO of Love Our Children USA, a national nonprofit working to break the cycle of violence against children and a New York City real estate agent with Halstead Property. One thing led to another, and soon Ellis had a speaking engagement for her charity: “She was a teacher and I asked her if she had a lot of bullying in her school.”

Sounds simple, but rub new contacts the wrong way and your network will shrink, not expand. Here’s how to become an expert networker, without ever being annoying, or worse, looking desperate:

1. Nurture Your Network ... Patiently

The key to good networking is distinguishing it from, say, asking for a job, a contact, or Hannah Montana tickets for your daughter. “Networking by definition means talking to people when you don’t need something,” says Peter Shankman, founder of HARO, a resource that connects small businesses with journalists. “Some people walk into a party, throw 50 business cards around and then leave. I call them business-card ninjas.”

Keeping in touch is crucial, he adds — so that when you need someone, a follow-up isn’t like an initial meeting. “I got this random e-mail six months after I met someone, saying ‘Hey, I’m looking for a job,’” says Shankman of one tactless attempt at networking. His response: “I’m only hearing from you when you need something?”

You should also keep your online profile active; you never know who’s watching. While freelancing in media relations, Sarah Bottoms started posting successful media placements for clients on her LinkedIn page, which was viewed by her network of 400 people — including a former colleague. “She eventually referred me for a full-time position at Vidicom, a broadcast PR firm where I now work as a media relations specialist,” says Bottoms.

2. Ask How You Can Help

How can you avoid looking impatient? To paraphrase JFK: Ask first not what your contact can do for you, but what you can do for your contact. Not only is it polite to ask about the other person, but asking about them will send the signal that you have a peer-peer relationship, not a mentor-student one. Better yet, help that person — it’s good karma, and they will want to return the favor. “Networking is about finding a win-win situation for all the parties involved in the connection,” says Ellen Whitehurst, a Virginia Beach writer and feng shui expert. “Anything else is usually called a favor.”

Plus, focusing on the other person may help you get into a more substantive conversation. Not quite sure how to start? “Everyone you meet, you should make it a goal to let them talk. Find out what they do, what they need, long before you start talking or touting yourself,” Shankman suggests.

3. Know When to Ask — and How

You needn’t be afraid to ask for help after you’ve done your due diligence. But be conscious of your message: If you’re looking for job contacts, for instance, what should come across is that you’re available for great opportunities — not that you’re a laid-off loser. “It’s all in your delivery. The worst is not having a positive attitude,” says Rita Allen, a Massachusetts-based executive coach.

You wouldn’t go into an interview and speak negatively about your industry, right? So don’t do it on Facebook or in a mass e-mail. Instead, be specific about your goals and create a personal brand, particularly if you’re reaching out to many people at once. “If you’re not prepared and confident in your message, that’s when you come across as desperate,” says Allen.

4. Make the Web Work for You

This one should be obvious: The Web is the fastest-expanding arena for networking, with LinkedIn and Twitter leading the way. “I use LinkedIn to stay connected with my business contacts so I don’t lose contact information when someone switches jobs,” says motivational speaker and strategy consultant John Paul Engel, who used networking to publish his book, Project Be The Change, and get it distributed to students throughout the country. Now, Engel uses Facebook as a free publicist. “I’ve promoted the book on Facebook through postings about my speeches and other project-related activities,” he adds.

Some people are even parlaying their 140 characters into full-time jobs. After being laid off from her position as a news reporter at a Wisconsin TV station, Jenna Bennett fired up her Twitter account. “I wanted to make the switch from news into public relations, so I started following agencies and individuals at those agencies,” says Bennett. “I started following my current boss [at LaBreche, a Minneapolis communications agency] and our HR manager, Andrea. Andrea and I exchanged messages, and I asked if I could visit LaBreche for an informational interview. Although they didn’t have an opening at that time, I stayed in touch with Andrea on Twitter and when they did have an opening in February, she sent me a private message on Twitter and told me about it.”

5. Shake Some Hands

As crucial as it is to have an online presence, connecting in person can leave a more lasting impression — whether you set up an informational interview, as Bennett did, or just meet for a coffee. When Dr. Doug Hirschorn, a Wall Street performance coach and author of 8 Ways To Great, was trying to sell his first book in 2001, he cold-called publisher John Wylie, and was asked to send his book in — but he didn’t. “I asked if I could come in in person. I walked out with a contract,” says Hirschorn, who now regularly appears on CNBC.

Not only is direct eye contact a better way to make a connection; sometimes it is the only way. “I don’t think high-level executives are interacting on Facebook,” says Torossian, who adds that he personally doesn’t put much personal information on Facebook, and that his assistant checks his page. It’s a lot easier to get to a CEO of a company if you happen to literally bump into them at a bar than if you have to push through 12 levels of virtual protection.

So before you check your coat at your next networking event, prepare your message, goals and research your audience. “You should go into any networking potential or opportunity with at least an idea of who you’d like to meet and why. Even if you are networking for PTA purposes, you should know who the last two presidents of the local chapter or of your school (or both) are, and should know something about the new president and their relationship with your home school, and how you can help,” says Whitehurst.

By being specific with your goals, using technology properly and following the golden rule of giving before taking, you’ll attract a strong network of peers — a priceless commodity in any economy.

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  • Amy Levin-Epstein - feature On Twitter»

    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MWOnTheJob.

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