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For the shy or the indifferent, networking can be a hassle. But there are ways to get your name out there without resorting to mindless cocktail party chatter.

Q: I’m unemployed, and people keep telling me to network. I’m not good at conferences because I don’t like to schmooze. I also don’t like the idea of joining an association just to approach people about a job. How important is networking, really? Can I get a job without having to first wear a nametag at a cocktail party somewhere?

A: As someone who also scopes out the exits whenever I enter a conference hall, I can understand your reservations about upping your “hi, howareya” skills. With that said, let me give you the bad news first: networking is crucial, especially in this job scene. If all you’re doing is sending out your resume and failing to network in the meantime, you could be looking at some pretty lean days ahead.

Now we can turn to the good news. Networking is not what you think it is. Although there is quite a bit of value in conferences and association meetings, that’s only one place to consider as a networking opportunity. Here’s another: your mom’s house. Also, you can think of that weekly gathering with your friends at the corner pub as an excellent networking spot, as well as the offices of every job you’ve had before.

Networking is about getting the word out that you’re looking for a new job, and about finding open positions that haven’t been advertised or are just being created. It’s important to meet other people in your industry, as tough as that might be for shy people, but it’s also critical to understand what connections are right in front of you. Often, friends and family know you’re unemployed, but don’t make the connection between you and that open job at their friend Bob’s company. It’s up to you to suggest that link. You’d be amazed at how casual conversation about your skills can suddenly spark an idea among your pals about where to send your resume. Also, despite the downturn, some companies still give their employees referral bonuses for bringing in good candidates. That’s because, as HR gurus know, the best workers are usually those who come in via referral.

Beyond your immediate circle of friends and family lie other, job-rich circles that you can also explore. Muster up the courage for at least some of those conferences and association meetings. Set up informational interviews at companies where you’d like to have your nameplate. Join clubs that meet and discuss niche areas of technology that you like, such as security, gaming, or biometrics. Jump onto online discussion boards and be vocal. This is the professional-level networking that puts your name and skills in front of executives, managers, and IT directors.

Let’s move on to presentation. When networking at the non-friends level, you have to think about how others see you and, most important, how you want them to see you. Understand what makes you a valuable candidate and find ways to make that come out through casual chat. There’s no need to turn yourself into a bore and prattle on at length about yourself, your awe-inspiring abilities, and how much you need a job, but there are ways to emphasize your worth during a conversation. When your fellow networker is talking about a difficulty that he’s having at work, maybe you can suggest ways to tackle the problem. If the conversation turns to larger issues about your industry, throw out a few insights that show how much you pay attention and care about the field. One thing to always avoid is any kind of negative talk about your former employers. As all this networking will demonstrate, you never know how people are connected, and who knows who. Keeping upbeat and positive about your past associations will keep you from getting burned from badmouthing.

Finally, work on your ability to shoot the breeze. Sure, cocktail party chatter can be tedious, and lead to lengthy discussions about someone’s dog training troubles or mother-in-law issues, but to be honest, conversation is what you make it. With practice, it doesn’t happen to you, it happens because of you. Rather than enter the room feeling defensive and ready to bolt, look at it as an opportunity to meet others who share your professional interests. Don’t hold your breath and think that this is the only way you’re going to find a job. Rather, just relax and see it as a nice way to spend an evening and perhaps meet some useful contacts at the same time. We’ve all met the guy who’s obviously not happy to be chatting with us because he hates small talk, and is only doing it because he thinks it will benefit him in the long run. Don’t be that guy. Be the one that other people like to meet and enjoy talking with, because that’s the guy that people love to hire.

Send your career-related questions to Elizabeth Millard.

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