Increased opportunities to form new connections can be overwhelming, whether it’s the holiday season or conference season. Focus your efforts with these five simple steps.

Whether you feel dread or excitement as you anticipate traditional networking opportunities, your career success depends on your network more than any other factor. From Thanksgiving through the New Year, there are more events in our personal and professional lives where we can make new connections to cultivate. But during the holiday season and in other eventful periods in your life, we can get overwhelmed easily and miss out on opportunities.

Nearly 82% of referrals come not from current clients but people who have never worked with us, yet know, like, and trust us. Expand your network of people who know, like, and trust you. They are the people who will hire you, tell others about you, and tell you about opportunities that may help you achieve your goals. Other people know about opportunities you do not and people you have never met.

1. Decide which events to attend.

If your goal is business growth rather than career development, then your practice area may dictate where you are more likely to meet prospects and potential referral sources. “Lawyers are almost always great contacts,” according to Damian Turco, a divorce and family law attorney who has built a successful practice by networking with other lawyers.

Attend the events where you can expect to meet the right contacts for your networking goals. Most bar associations have holiday parties. Join industry groups that are aligned with your practice area. If your practice is small businesses, consider professional referral groups, like BNI and local Chambers of Commerce. If one group isn’t a good fit, try another.

2. Overcome personal obstacles.

Even those of us who enjoy conversations with strangers often view networking as a waste of time. And for many of us, feelings include include anxiety, confusion, and frustration. Introverts find it exhausting and difficult to strike up a superficial conversation with a stranger. Extraverts forget to stop talking and let others answer questions. You’ll create a self­-fulfilling prophecy if you interpret slow results as no results. Invest time in the process with optimism.

The nature of relationship-building is a slow process. Do you feel self­-conscious talking about yourself? Are you fixated on failing? If you do not get a new job, client or best friend immediately after an event, that’s not a failure. You will not know whether that person becomes a client or referral source. That information develops over time, as does a person’s conclusion that he or she knows, likes and trusts you.

“Your goal is to meet people worth following up with,” as Maggie Watkins, Senior Client Services Director at Womble Bond Dickinson puts it. Find modest goals to stay motivated, e.g. a number of new people to meet and a number to follow up with. Who is worth your follow­up time? Similar to knowing which events to attend, it’s about your evaluation of whether the person has the potential to develop into a client or referral source.

Remember that networking isn’t completely self-interested. You will help your new connections. Plan to offer “5-minute favors” (networking gold), and understand that networking insecurities often come from idea that someone else has what you need and you feel powerless in some way — but you can change your perspective by adopting the first-to-help approach.

Recognize that you can cultivate trust with better communication. Find out how to communicate trust in this blog post.

3. Prepare answers to common questions.

The first step in making a connection is exchanging information about who we are. By spending more time learning about and understanding yourself, your interests, your motivation, and your goals, you develop a better ability to communicate it. Reduce the stress of performance anxiety by planning in advance.

You can expect to hear: Tell me about yourself and What do you do? Provide responses that describe you both professionally and personally. If you barely take time to enjoy hobbies and can’t share a passionate sentence about your interests, you’ll often come across as untrustworthy.

Stand out by describing your work in terms of how you solve problems — differently. If someone asks pointedly about your job, don’t respond with too much detail or with information you know is irrelevant to that person. Instead of saying you are a “commercial litigator,” consider saying that you “solve business litigation problems.” Never deliver an oral resume.

You’ll need an evolving answer when you’re asked: What’s new? Choose topics relevant to your values, goals, or how you solve problems to start building trust. Always have a few go-to’s in mind, rather than searching your brain for *the one*. You could discuss an ongoing or recent project without sharing confidential information. You could talk about recent travel, a new restaurant you visited, or a new movie, television show or book that has engaged your attention. Finally, you can talk about the top news stories in your industry.

4. Prepare a list of ‘go­-to’ conversation­ starters.

Learn about someone else with open-­ended questions that nudge a person to disclose information that will help you understand his or her interests. Do not take information and immediately transition into trying to sell yourself. Take the time to listen to understand, and then ask questions to understand better.

Frame your starting questions with broad curiosity:

  • How do you spend your free time?
  • What books, movies or shows are you enjoying?
  • Have you been following (fill in the sentence with a new trend in technology or popular culture)?

Listen more than you speak. This often requires more effort than we anticipate. Give people enough time to respond to your questions and then demonstrate your attentiveness and interest in what they are saying. Ask questions that will help you figure out whether you’re meeting a potential client, referral source, or career development connection. Ask questions that will help you figure out how you might be able to offer a helpful favor or information.

5. Bring business cards — in order to get them.

“It’s not about how many business cards you give out,” Maggie Watkins says. “It’s about how many business cards you get.” Set a reasonable goal to meet some people and make sure to take business cards from any worth a follow­up.

Business cards are props. Use them to capture valuable information about people to use when you follow up, or to get out of a conversation by offering your card and taking theirs as you tell them that you look forward to following up with them.

Write something on the back of the card to remind yourself of the person you met when you follow up. When you contact people, include an article of interest based on what they told you or a follow­up comment to the conversation you had at the event. “You can’t work the whole room,” Watkins says. “The follow­up is where you’ll find out more about them — what they want and need and how you can help them.”

Dive deeper into your networking strategy: Successful Strategic Networking for Lawyers

Our Rainmakers Incubator is designed to help lawyers develop their communication skills in a way that helps them sell their services more effectively. It’s Free & Confidential. Find out more here!

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An earlier version of this blog post was originally published in the November 30, 2017 edition of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.