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By: Taye Akinola

I am standing in a crowded room wearing a Banana Republic, gingham-styled dress shirt with a sky blue bow tie and khaki pants in the Blue Room, holding a small glass of water. And it does not help that my palms are sweating profusely while I stand there holding my glass. I am mentally scanning the room, realizing I should have went shopping to buy something trendy from the latest summer collection at Banana Republic. It also does not help that I am having a hard time listening to people talk around me, due to the fact I am Deaf and, generally, a shy person in a crowded environment.

The White House invited me to attend the White House LGBT Pride Reception. And I knew this would be a great opportunity to network with very powerful people and to meet the president of the United States.  Luckily, I was able to invite one of my good friends to go with me to the reception. At the White House, I saw and met some prominent people. I met an actor, who flew from Hollywood, California, an executive member of DNC and a couple of executives from prominent non-profit organizations in DC fighting for LGBT rights.

Before going to the event, I had often heard that networking is the key to getting the next job or making new connections. I had also heard that networking is an art form and attending a networking event requires preparation, stamina, and courage. Although the pride reception was not a networking event, I knew I could use this opportunity to meet new people. I will be honest – I did not do a great deal of preparation because I assume all one has to do is to bring business cards and make casual conversation – that is it.

But I was dead wrong.

Here I am in one of the most iconic buildings in the world – the White House – in a room full of prominent individuals that I could meet who could forever change my life. As many of you know, I am looking to secure my first paralegal job here in DC. I find myself face-to-face meeting people who work for the largest law firms, individuals working for some of the most powerful federal agencies in the district…and I blew it. Let me count the ways:

Business Cards. I did not bring my business cards with me. I realized when I arrived to the event that I left my business cards on the dining table at my apartment. While my current position is not related to the career I am seeking, it still shows that I am gainfully employed and local. Having business cards is one of the most basic things to bring to a networking event. How can someone you met (and hopefully impressed) remember you? Granted, the person you may be talking with may have a card to offer you, but suppose that person forgets? Or perhaps that person asks you for a card? If you do not have a business card, you can create one to use at networking events.

Elevator Pitch. I did not have an elevator pitch when I meet with people at the event. My thought process was scattered and I ended up rambling about something that was not remotely what I wanted to discuss, especially considering I want to have a career in the legal field. An elevator pitch is a one-minute sales pitch of your skills and experience. It is also incredibly helpful if your elevator pitch is memorable to the people that you are meeting.

Conversation Starters. I did not have any conversation starters to use when I met people. I ended up talking about something that was a bit controversial (same-sex marriage) and boring (the weather). Conversation starters are a good way to making conversations friendly and get the conversation going, especially when you are meeting with people you never met before. What I found helpful for me was to have a few conversation starters related to the area of law I am interested in, as well as non-controversial, current events that happened a week or so ago.

Networking Wingperson. While I had a wingman with me at the event, I did not use him effectively. We were missing cues. He did not look out for me when I was stuttering my thoughts and going off topic – mainly because we did not had a game plan before we entered the event. A networking wingperson is a person that will help you achieve your goals when going to networking events. What I realized was that I should have discussed with him my goals; the outcome I would like to see at the end of the event. For example, should have discussed how many people I would like to meet before the night is over. And while talking with people, if he notices me going off topic, he would gear me back on track by saying something related to my career aspirations or legal interests, to signal that I am off track and redirect my thoughts back to what I need to say.

Have a plan. When I was at the White House, I realized that I did not have a plan. I did not think of how many people I want to meet or what to do when I met up with familiar people I had met in the past. In that event, I just winged it, which is a terrible idea. What I should have done was devise a plan of how many people I wanted to meet, what kind of people I wanted to meet, and how I was going to meet with the people I would like to meet. Also, when I bump into people that I knew or was acquainted with, it would have been a great opportunity to reconnect with those people. You never know – that acquaintance may introduce you to other people that you would never have met if you did not bump into that familiar face.

Going forward, I plan to use the five different strategies discussed above when attending future networking events. Although, I still consider myself a novice when it comes to networking, I was able to quickly learn from my mistakes and become more networking-savvy in a social setting. This is not meant to be an absolute list of strategies for networking, but it is a start. You can work to come up with your own list of networking strategies that best suit your needs and goals when you are meeting new people.

At the end of my first networking event at the White House, I bombed it and missed a few opportunities to meet new people and reconnect with former classmates and colleagues. Fortunately, my networking story does have a bit of a happy ending—I was afforded two more networking opportunities later that month.  I was able to learn from my mistakes. I truly came away with what I was looking for following those two networking events. As a result, I added a few new people into my network who offered to provide any assistance that I may need in my job search!

The next time you find yourself on the eve of a major networking event or preparing to enter a key social setting, follow these strategies, and come up with a few of your own! You never know where they might lead you or to whom.  You may be one networking chat away from forever changing your life, without even knowing it. Now get out there and embrace your networking mojo!

Taye holds a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, master’s degree in deaf studies, and a graduate certificate in deaf history. He is interested in pursuing the intellectual property field, as well as corporate law and administrative law. He is very eager to begin his career as a paralegal.

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Hey TPS readers – We’re always looking for your wildly helpful tips! Got one to add to the list of 5 above? Hit that comment button and tell us about it.

We hope to see you on Friday. That being said, our fearless Founder is currently listed under the enchanting category of  “trial paralegal walking.” Control over one’s own schedule? Non-existent. More work than time? But of course. Hoping to see you on our regular blogging schedule? Absolutely! (Refer back to the two previous points above, add in a one-way ticket to Crazy Town – and we’ll see where we end up).

Make it an absolutely fabulous work week, paralegals! And if you find yourself overwhelmed, out of breath, and nearly exhausted after running one too many caffeinated sprints through the legal gauntlet, know this — you will not be alone.