By Liz Ryan
When you meet a new person, what will you say? It won't do to fumble as you describe what you've done and what you're looking for. When you get to the point in the conversation where a new acquaintance asks you, "What do you do?" you've got to be ready.
In my experience, the best answer to "What do you do?" is never "I'm job-hunting." That's a conversation-killer.
The only possible response to the question is another question, namely, "What sort of job are you looking for?" and seldom is a new acquaintance excited about asking that question of someone they've just met. The sad fact is that far too many job-seeking networkers use their networking conversations as thinly veiled pleas for job-search assistance, and that's no more appropriate than for a networker to meet you and immediately try to sell you a time-share in a ski-in/ski-out condo. That's not networking, it's selling.
So you've got to come up with a different answer to the question, "What do you do?" You can say "I'm a marketer," and talk about your marketing background. In fact, you ARE a marketer; it's a fine point that you happen to be between jobs now. If your new acquaintance is a contract recruiter who just finished an assignment and is waiting for the next one, you wouldn't expect her to say "Well, I was a contract recruiter up until last week, but I don't have a new assignment yet." The lady is still a contract recruiter! That's what she does for a living. She happens to be between assignments. It happens all the time. It doesn't change her professional status or, more importantly, her view of herself.
As a job-seeking networking, you need to practice cultivating the same self-view as that temporarily idle contract recruiter. When someone asks "What do you do?" you can say "I'm an IT Director." You can talk about some of the things you've seen and done in IT and have a lively conversation about that. Yes – you happen to be job-hunting right now. But that it's the be-all and end-all message about you. It would be a shame, and very unfortunate networking to boot, to throw the I-need-a-job message on the table in the first three minutes.
So, you can start with this exercise. Ask a friend to practice-network with you, and get used to answering the inevitable question "What do you do?" without mentioning your job search. You'll find that it will get easier and easier over time to chat on about this and that. You are not looking for your new contact to interview you for the details of your job-search specs, for one thing. You are looking to start a relationship. You might talk about anything – cars, kids, dogs, violin concerti, you name it – and see where the conversation leads. If it leads to the kind of budding relationship where your new acquaintance says "Would you like to have coffee next week?" you won't care that the job search topic didn't come up. You've got something more valuable – a new associate to brainstorm with – as you leave the event.
Now, let's go in the opposite direction – let's say that your new pal asks you "Where are you working now?" It's absolutely fine, of course, to say "I was with IBM until October, when they had that big reduction in staff." Then, it would be natural for your new friend to ask "What sorts of things are you looking at?" If this happens, it's very good to be able to talk about specific companies that you are targeting. That way, if your acquaintance knows someone at one of those employers, he or she is highly likely to say "Oh, I have a good friend there!" It's less helpful for you to say "Know anyone who's hiring?" Your friends have friends of their own, but they don't usually know which ones are hiring!
Anyway, your best bet in job-search networking is not necessarily to target companies that are hiring. It's astonishing how many positions are never posted or opened to the public. When companies spot smart and capable people, they'll often create a position on the fly. That's a great situation for a job-hunter to be in. But you won't get there by opening a conversation with "I'm unemployed."
Get used to describing yourself as your friends see you – as a talented professional who's in transition at the moment. Your job search, so daunting and overwhelming at the moment, will end up a minor blip on your resume, or vanish into your past entirely. You're a job-seeker for a minute, relatively speaking: you're an IT Director, a Marketing pro or a Jack-or-Jill-of-all-trades for a long time. That's the way to introduce yourself to people who haven't had the chance to see you in action, yet.
If you're going to start networking in your job search or if you're already doing it, you're going to need some tools! For starters, you'll need a LinkedIn profile, so that after you meet a new person in your job search, that person can look you up on LinkedIn and learn more about you. You can get a free LinkedIn account at www.linkedin.com.
After that, I recommend that you purchase some job-search business cards to hand out at networking events and to give to your friends. Your job-search business card should include your contact info, a brief mention of the kind of job you're seeking and a few bullet points that share the highlights of your background.
Liz Ryan is Job-Hunt's Networking Contributor. Liz is a former Fortune 500 VP and 25-year veteran of corporate human resources departments. In addition, Liz is the author of Happy About Online Networking and an internationally recognized expert on careers and the 21st century workplace. Find Liz on LinkedIn and on Google+.