by Willette Coleman
As a member of the 43rd Annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Legislative Conference’s Bloggers Row (September 18-21), I sat with a cup of hot, strong black coffee and planned my workshop-going and networking strategy. From among nearly 50 Braintrusts and forums on health, education, media, community and global violence, business, politics, finance, and international affairs, held at Washington, DC’s Convention Center, “I’d be lucky to cover 20,” I mused.
Networking is a career lifeskill. The conference’s bold and motivating theme, IT STARTS WITH YOU, that urged participants to be active in their communities to improve them, also applied to networking. Here are some basic networking lifeskills’ “do’s” and “don’ts” at conferences (or anywhere).
1. Register. Conference fees can be beyond a lot of people’s budget, so consider these tips to get FREE access.
· Register as “Press,” if you have a professional blog, website or newsletter.
· Ask about “general registration” for forums/seminars open to the public.
2. Purpose. Before stepping into the networking arena, pinpoint your purpose. Clarity about who you are, what you are about and what your boundaries are, is your foundation; your strength, and makes networking easier. My purpose included education, careers, scholarships and exposing my blog to more people. Renown author and motivational speaker, Ilyana Vanzant, encouraged over 300 participants at the Networking Luncheon, to “Be Clear and authentic about your purpose,” because “Networking comes from inside you.” I witnessed hundreds of 20 through 30-somethings clearly articulate their purposes with and get career guidance from mature leaders, such as former Congressman Ronald Dellums, at the Emerging Leaders – Instant Apprentice Power Luncheon.
3. Dress professionally. Pretend you’re going to a job interview.
4. Smile. Even if you’re nervous (networking can be intimidating) do 7 deep belly breathing exercises, look the person you approach in the eyes and smile. If you’re shy, participating in a networking group beforehand can be helpful. While some career advisors recommend shy individuals begin by networking on sites like LinkedIn, the Internet doesn’t provide the face-to-face interaction needed. I recommend role-playing with family, friends, or, if you’re a student, teachers. It isn’t easy pretending they are strangers, but the practice helps you act out your anxieties. Remember those 7 deep belly breaths. Keep practicing. Over time, you’ll relax.
5. Familiarize Yourself with the Program’s Agenda (choose sessions that relate to your purpose) & Read about the Speakers and Panelists. For example, the Beacons for the Future: Trailblazers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education for African Americans correlated to a proposal I’m editing for a nonprofit that offers a STEM program for underserved children and youth. I networked with Dr. Reagan Flowers, founder and CEO of C-STEM. And, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson offered exceptional networking opportunities at her Science & Technology Braintrust.
6. Pay Attention to Speakers (or anyone you approach); Take Notes. Taking notes helps you approach an individual or a panelist at the end of a session with clear intention, and shows you were paying attention. Refer to something a panelist said in their presentation that stood out for you. Connect that statement to your purpose. This will get and hold their attention.
7. Business Cards – essential networking tools. Students can order or create your own cards that contain your name, email address, and phone number. To make it interesting/ stand out, include your major, school you’re attending and a brief statement of your plan (e.g., Future marine biologist, chemistry teacher, fashion designer, novelist, airline pilot, mechanical engineer, yoga instructor, etc.). Ask permission to give your card. Usually, when you hand it over, he/she will return the favor. Don’t force it, if they don’t.
· In a quiet space, put business cards in alphabetical order by his/her last name, or company or school. Review each. If you need to, make additional notes on the back.
· Browse her/his company’s or school’s website. If you’re looking for a job, search for a career tab.
· Email a “thank you” to individuals you really want to connect with. Remind him/her of your conversation at the event. Refer to the statement in your notes that connects to our purpose. Ask: “May I stay in touch with you to (regarding your purpose)?”
Many conference speakers represent companies that offer scholarship, so, again, search their website.
1. Don’t just “work the room.” Interface with individuals on more than a superficial level.
2. Don’t ask for a favor. If you have a business, don’t ask anyone to send you customers, or blatantly ask for a job. Allow people to get familiar with you first. Networking, like relationship building, takes time. Although waiting can be frustrating, being pushy will reap you little success.
3. Don’t spend a lot of time…. texting, tweeting or scrolling pictures on your iPhone in a workshop session. Again, pay attention.
4. Dress Code: Again, think “job interview.” Males: No saggin’ pants/jeans, shirts hanging outside pants, or tee-shirts. Females: No thigh-revealing dresses or skirts, too-tight fitting pants; cleavage-revealing dresses or tops, and spiked heels; kill the bat-wing eyelashes and heavy makeup. Remember – Leggins’ are not pants/slacks. Males & Females: Cancel the heavy cologne or perfume. Some people are allergic, others gag on heavy aromas. Unfortunately, some people tend to exhibit poor grooming when policies aren’t in place, which is why Newsweek Magazine enacted dress ethics.
5. Don’t lie about your accomplishments or what you can do. Operate in Integrity.
6. Don’t Interrupt. If you approach someone engaged in a conversation, wait. Don’t show impatience if you aren’t acknowledged immediately. If they acknowledge you, say: “Forgive me for interrupting…”
If nothing else, networking is fun, especially if you like meeting and talking with people – near and far. Kenyan and South African panelists, on the Africa Braintrust, provided numerous networking opportunities, as did Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ Banking Issue Forum, the Avoice Student Voting Rights Workshop, and the Author’s Pavilion that showcased prolific authors like Terry McMillian (How Stella Got Her Groove On, and other best-sellers), and actress/author Victoria Rowell (The Young and the Restless daytime soap), whose book, The Women Who Raised Me, documents her life in foster care.
My own networking yielded a surprise. Along with being allowed into numerous receptions (plenty of music and delicious food), Donna Brazille’s associate, at the Not for Sistah’s Only Political Conversation with Heroic Women session, unexpectedly, gave me a ticket ($300 value) to the conference’s 2013 Phoenix Awards Dinner. President Obama was the keynote speaker. To say it was thrilling to see him and the First Lady walk onstage, hand-in-hand, in the flesh – a breathing reality of pictures on the many Obama-themed calendars hanging on walls throughout my living space – is an understatement. On a profoundly personal level, I was honored to be a witness, for my ancestors who have transitioned to the Other Side, to the first African American president. Thank God for favoring me.
Go here for more information, videos and pictures at the 43rd Black Caucus Legislative Foundation Conference.
“Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re getting……” But you do know that if you want to build and maintain an effective network, It Starts With You.
Resources for successful networking strategies.
How To Network
How To Network Like A Pro
Magic, Miracles & Blessings,