11/08/2012 02:47 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

5 Critical Tips Before You Network

Everyone is talking about networking, including career experts who preach its importance. However, it is a concept that is often misunderstood. I tend to define networking as a sequential process of establishing and maintaining relationships in the hope of increasing the probability of your being in the right place at the right time. Networking takes place in person, by phone, and digitally.

Here are five key points about networking including assumptions, expectations, and behaviors:

1). Keep the resume at home. Many job seekers will bring multiple copies of their resume to a networking event. But, remember that this is not a job fair. Even if someone is nice enough to take your resume, he/she has not brought a folder to carry it back to the office. Unless you are specifically told to bring resumes, go with a smaller business card instead. (There are places online where you can order simple but effective business cards at little cost.) Having your email address and URL for your LinkedIn profile printed on the card is more than enough.

2). Select the right event and be patient. To me, the ideal employment networking event will consist of 33 percent job seekers, 33 percent employers, and 33 percent otherwise well-connected people. In practice, however, these types of events tend to attract a higher percentage of active job seekers. (This should not necessarily deter you from attending, but you should just be aware that this will increase your competition for face time with the other categories of individuals.) Keep in mind that there are also other venues at which you will be able to engage in similar networking activities. It could be a party, a professional association meeting, or a conference. The number and nature of your conversations should obviously be moderated by the context. Also, if you have made the investment of your time to register (perhaps at a fee) and travel to the event, don't be discouraged and leave prematurely. Give it some time. You might very well meet a person who will be advantageous to you, just before closing time.

3). Be assertive, but not overbearing or come across as desperate. This is part art, part experience, and part emotional intelligence. People who are naturally introverted must be able to come out of their comfort zone when in a networking environment. On the other hand, never interrupt an ongoing conversation, even if you already know one of those talking. Always wait on the side for an obvious breakpoint before making your nonverbal and verbal approach. If you sense that the listener is not that responsive to the initial mention of your employment situation, back off and move on.

4). Keep your "elevator speech" handy.
While the structure of that speech is not the focus here, you should have a few key nuggets prepared to possibly include in your conversations while networking. At minimum, you should be identifying yourself professionally. For example, you might brand yourself as a Project Manager or IT Programmer. Also include what sort of professional situation you are looking for at this time. An effective pitch will plant a seed with that person for a later time. This information, together with your business card, will hopefully elicit favorable recall in the future.

5). Ninety-nine percent of the time, the payoff will not be immediate. When you engage in networking or attend a dedicated networking event, you should not approach it with the expectation of securing a job offer or even an interview. Networking is incremental. Relationships must first be built before they can be drawn upon. Employ a "give-and-take" model. Your social interactions should first be those that give to others. Provide others with a lead or piece of information which you are privy to that might be relevant to them. Share some resource which has been of value to you. People will tend to remember these gestures and reach out to you down the line. Then you can "take."