Work It Out

5 networking secrets every young person should know

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Dear Work It Out,

I am 19 and in college and have recently started to build my career by attending tech conferences. But I have found myself in a situation where no one will talk to me, and if I go up to them and start talking, the conversation is short.

Because I’m a woman, and a young one, I get stared at a lot but will not have someone spark a conversation. Or when someone rarely does talk to me, “No, I do not want to get dinner/drinks with you.”

My goal from networking is to learn. How do you join a conversation when everyone is in little circles? What are you supposed to talk about? Like, “Hello, I am this random person…”? If only we were taught this in school!

First of all, good for you for taking your career into your own hands and trying to make something happen for yourself while you’re still in school.

I’ve found that networking events can be hit or miss. Sometimes you’ll go and have superficial conversations, or maybe none at all, and get nothing lasting out of them. Other times, a chance encounter could change your life. I once met a lovely woman at a panel event who turned out to be a top exec at one of my favorite publications, and she set me up with a job interview.

Mastering the art of networking is a great goal, so I’m going to let you in on a few secrets that I wish I’d known at your age:

1. It’s awkward for everyone

Here’s the truth: Most people in business hate networking events. It’s awkward! No one really knows what to say or how to get past the “So, what do you do?” banalities. But once you understand that, you can use it your advantage by actively seeking to make other people more comfortable.

When you take the initiative to introduce yourself and start a conversation, you’ll often find that the other person is relieved. So don’t wait around for other people to come to you. Find an opening and say hello.

2. People love talking about themselves

Wherever you go, people are just people. And I’ve found they all have a favorite subject — themselves. The best way to engage others in conversation is to ask them questions about themselves, their work and their opinions.

Ask things like: “What did you think of the speaker?” “Do you work with X in your field?” “How did you get into Y in the first place?” Really listen. Smile and nod and encourage them to talk. It will make them feel great, and you’ll probably learn a lot too.

3. Being young can be useful

OK, being young and a woman can be a problem. I get it. I started my career as a business journalist when I was 21, and at events I was frequently mistaken for a PR assistant. I’m also only 5’2”, so even today people still think I’m younger than I am. But hey, that’s not the worst thing as you get older. Plus, you won’t be young forever, so you might as well use the benefits of youth while you can.

And there’s a biggie when it comes to networking: Older people want to help young people. Why? It’s flattering when someone wants your advice. It feels good to help someone who wants to follow in your footsteps. Remember that. If you want to get on someone’s calendar, say how much you admire their career and how appreciative you’d be if they could spare 15 minutes to tell you how they got to where they are. If you’re genuine, schedules will clear fast.

4. Ease into social circles with a good icebreaker

It is extremely intimidating to be alone at an event where everyone is talking in little circles. I have a go-to strategy that, I’ll admit, isn’t for the faint of heart: I will walk up to a group of nice-seeming people and with a big smile say, “May I crash your circle?” It has worked for me every single time because, honestly, who’s going to say “no"? Usually someone, or multiple people, say “Of course!” and then introduce themselves or fill me in on what they’re talking about.

If that’s a little too bold for you, you can also make eye contact with one member of the circle and start with, “Hi, my name is X.” It’s a great idea to have some icebreaker questions prepared to get the conversation flowing. Two of my favorites are, “What brings you to this event?” and, “Do you know anyone here?”

5. It’s all in the follow up

I generally advise making one or two real connections instead of racing around a room, shoving business cards in people’s faces. For me, a quality conversation always beats quantity, and it sets you up to keep the dialogue going after the event. That’s why the real secret to effective networking is in the follow up.

If you spoke about a certain topic or person that you know, ask for their email address so you can follow up with a relevant article or an introduction. And then do it. Maybe something will come of it, or maybe nothing will, but hopefully you’ll have some interesting conversations along the way.

Have a pressing career concern or question? Email me anonymously at workitout@cnbc.com. Submissions may be edited for length and clarity.

Don't miss: What you can learn from Barack Obama's 4 rules for networking

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