Imagine this scenario: You arrive at a job fair and have a few minutes to spare before the welcome presentation begins. You grab some coffee, peruse the continental breakfast spread (opting to stick to your diet instead) and grab a seat in the meeting room.
As you settle into your chair, you notice the name tag of the professionally dressed man sitting next to you. "John Smith, VP of Recruiting, Dream Company." Oh, my. You are sitting next to the exact decision-maker at your ideal employer, and you have the opportunity to network and chat with him before anyone else.
Naturally, this scenario is ripe with opportunity and filled with potential anxiety: What do you say? How do you introduce yourself? Do you dive in and pitch your resume or hang back and make small talk?
Starting the conversation in a networking situation is not something you were likely trained for during your military career. While you focused on strategic and tactical planning and skills for successfully completing a mission, your civilian counterparts may have been developing their conversational skills, putting you at a disadvantage now that you are leaving the military.
Related: Search for Veteran Jobs
How to Initiate a Networking Conversation
Instead of waiting for someone to approach you and initiate the conversation, consider taking that burden on yourself. When you do, you control the tone and pace of the discussion.
Consider these five tips to initiate a conversation in a professional setting:
1. Body Language Matters.
When you approach someone and introduce yourself, look them in the eyes and smile calmly. This is seen as a warm and friendly greeting, not a confrontation. Shaking hands (if appropriate) solidifies the body language. The goal is to communicate approachability and confidence in the first impression. You get there with body language.
2. Have Your Elevator Pitch Ready to Go.
Be prepared to introduce yourself, what you do and what makes you unique. A solid elevator pitch is concise, interesting and clear, giving the other person plenty to ask about or follow up on.
3. Listen as Much as You Talk.
If you introduce yourself and then hog the spotlight, you're not having a conversation. Instead, ask questions such as, "What brings you to this event?" or, "Have you read the speaker's latest book?" or even, "How's your job search going?" Strive for questions that are open-ended (not yes/no responses) and are not too personal.
4. Focus on "Safe" Topics.
Avoid talking about politics, religion or anything medical-related. Safe topics include local weather, business trends, the latest movie you've seen, vacation plans, their career path/industry/company, etc.
5. Position Your Value.
If you find yourself seated next to a target contact you're excited to converse with, use the opportunity to tell them specific things about your background, transition, goals and skills that might pique their interest for a follow-up conversation.
You won't be able to "sell" them on you, because there likely isn't enough time. But you can get them interested and intrigued so they'll want to continue learning about you and how you could be a great fit for the company.
The goal when initiating a conversation is just to get the discussion started. You are 50% of the dialogue, not the lead character. Listen and respond. Show empathy and understanding with your body language and words.
And when the conversation ends, thank them for spending the time with you and plan any next steps (e.g., connecting on LinkedIn, meeting for coffee, seeing them at the next event, etc.)
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