Given that I’ve got a sizable networking event coming up, outlined here, I was giving some thought to a set of tips I could share with the people coming to help them get the most possible mileage out of this meeting — especially since I know a lot of my clients, like me, aren’t entirely in their comfort zone when it comes to such affairs.

So after considering a laundry list of advice I could share on this subject, and flipping a few coins, I’ve boiled things down to the following five rules of thumb.

Rule #1: Be Focused
If people don’t understand what you want or need, they won’t be able to help you

What’s your current professional goal?  What are you working toward?  What kind of opportunities, contacts, or organizations are you trying to turn up?  When networking in a career-focused setting, it’s important to be extremely specific in terms of the assistance you’re seeking.  Many people characterize their search parameters in such an ambiguous way (e.g. “I’m open to anything” or “I’m a good problem-solver” or “I’m looking to work in the tech industry”) that the person on the other end simply can’t understand what they want — or how to help them.  You’ll get much farther if you drill down and provide a tangible and detail-studded description of your current professional focus.

e.g. I’m an accounting professional currently on the hunt for a new assignment, and given that one of my specialties is Sarbanes-Oxley, I’m looking for introductions to any public accounting firms or public companies that deal with SOX compliance.  I’m also trying to figure out who the top accounting recruiters are in Seattle, as well, if you happen to have any ideas…

Rule #2: Be Interesting
If you’re forgettable, nothing else matters

When you’re attending a modern networking event, especially one with a career-related bent to it, the simple fact that you’re looking for work isn’t going to set you apart from anybody else in the room.  You need to add a little more pizzazz to your efforts.  Make sure you talk about some of the interesting interviews or experiences you’ve had lately.  Or some of the interesting people you’ve met.  Or some insightful observations you’ve gained about the market or hiring process.  Or some of the passions, professional development steps, special projects, and volunteer efforts you’ve had the chance to engage in (ideally) given the extra time you have available.  Long story short, being a fascinating and well-informed person has nothing to do with your employment status.  Unless you let it.  And if all else fails, you can always try shifting the focus of the conversation to the other person with whom you’re speaking.  As Dale Carnegie once pointed out, that subject is ALWAYS interesting!

Rule #3: Be Positive
Most people have enough of their own problems; they don’t want to hear yours!

This one is the silent killer.  Far too many job hunters can’t help but use networking situations to vent their frustrations, bemoan their setbacks, and talk about all the things about the process that aren’t working well for them.  What they often fail to notice is that as they do this, people slowly edge away from them and find excuses to go talk to somebody else.  And that they consistently leave these networking functions without a single good tip or referral.  So even if you’re having a tough go of it, it’s in your own best interests to “fake it ’til you make it” based on your professional career health and self-interest alone.  Frame things in a positive way.  Find the silver lining in your situation.  Show gratitude.  Carry yourself like a winner.  Show that the bastards haven’t fully got you down and that you haven’t lost your sense of humor.  Optimism is contagious and you’ll notice that people respond to you in a much different way.

Rule #4: Be Reciprocal
Pay it forward and don’t make it all about you; constantly look for ways to help others

Nope, this idea isn’t a revolutionary one.  Virtually every networking book ever written stresses the importance of practicing a “give to get” philosophy and finding ways to help those around you, even if you can’t point to any immediate reciprocal benefit, in return.  The trick, though, is to not just pay lip service to this notion but to actively practice it.  Don’t just blab incessantly about yourself and then ask people how you can help them, robotically, at the end of the conversation.  Listen closely to their needs, suggest some specific ways you might be able to assist them, and then follow through and actually do these things.  Without question, it can be hard to focus on the needs of others when you’re feeling pretty “needy” yourself, but this altruistic mindset has been cited by some of the most accomplished people in history as the secret to their success.

Rule #5: Be Strategic
Great relationships are not usually built at networking events; they’re merely initiated

Last but not least, I’d stress that most networking events are relatively superficial and should be viewed primarily as a springboard for further socializing, down the road.  To get the most out of them, make sure you don’t spend all of your time cloistered with a single person — and that you collect names, business cards, and contact information so you can follow up with any interested parties at a later point in time.  Hit it off with somebody?  Ask them to coffee and/or invite them to connect with you on LinkedIn, several days later.  Have fun chatting about a mutual interest or hobby?  Clip out an article or send them some further thoughts about the subject.  Receive some useful help or assistance?  Make their day with a heartfelt note, at the appropriate time, telling them how you put their advice to good use or how the introduction they made turned out for you.  Again, networking events aren’t usually the right forum to get to know somebody extremely well, but they will help you figure out who you have a strong natural affinity with — and from there, you can work on developing the relationship to the next level.

So there you have it.  Five time-tested rules of thumb for succeeding on the networking circuit.  Whether you’re new to the game or already a wily veteran at these things, I believe it never hurts to be reminded about these fundamental principles, since they’re definitely the ones that get people the farthest, the fastest, in terms of building a great community of terrific allies around themselves!