I've been collecting some networking tips over the last few weeks, and thinking about what advice I would give to a young museum professional who's still in grad school or in a first entry level job or internship, and here's my list of ten. They're not all obvious or earth shattering, but I think they all go a long way toward addressing the nuts and bolts of how to make and keep professional contacts.
1. Keep your business cards in opposite pockets. That is to say, keep your business cards in your dominant hand pocket so that you can reach in quickly, and keep the business cards you receive in the opposite pocket. That way you'll be able to pull your own out quickly and you won't get it mixed up with the ones people have given you. Keep a pen handy, too, in case you need to write down more details for the person you're giving the card to. I spent about 2 years writing the Tufts Museum Studies blog url on the back of my own business cards when I was editor of that site, so people would visit it and connect it with me.
2. For that matter, have a business card. If you're currently employed at a museum, you're all set. However, if you are networking and in search of a job, it would be quite awkward to hand over your employer's card while you drop the hint that you'd like to talk about job opportunities. So either way, I recommend having a personal card. It doesn't have to be anything fancy - name, phone, email. Some people put a line like "museum professional" or "museum student" in the title line. Some people put a Twitter handle or a blog URL. If you blog or tweet regularly, and plan on keeping it up, go ahead. Just make sure the whole card isn't cluttered overall and that the essential information is there - name and email at the very least.
3. Pregame before business meals. Not the kind of pregaming you do before you go to a bar, but you get the idea. It's not uncommon to network or talk business over a meal. Maybe you're at a conference, maybe you're at a lunchtime informational interview, maybe you're sitting down at a coffee shop. Humans socialize around food. Here's the thing, though: if you're starving and all you can think of is eating, you're not going to be an effective communicator. Eat something beforehand so that you don't have to eat the meal, especially if you're susceptible to blood sugar issues. I'm not saying don't eat your meal - that would also be weird - but instead of staring longingly at your pasta while you try to answer questions about how awesome you are, take a bite here and there and keep up a lively conversation.
3b. Don't drink to excess. Ideally, don't drink at all. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's astonishing how many professional situations involve easy access to alcohol. If you're already nervous, a drink is not going to help - it's not a freshman mixer, it's a career opportunity. If you want to sip something or hold something in your hand, bars almost always carry ginger ale or juice. (True story: I once ordered a selzer and cranberry mix at a bar at a conference, and the next day the person who had been in line behind me sought me out to thank me for doing that - she was always nervous about the peer pressure of alcohol in social situations and she literally hadn't realized until that moment that she could just order something else to drink.)
4. Hold EITHER a drink OR an hors d'oeuvre in your non-dominant hand. This was given to me as a tip at a long ago etiquette dinner sponsored by my undergraduate college and it has stuck with me ever since. Imagine an evening cocktail party. You're mingling, you're chatting, and all of a sudden there's that curator you've been dying to meet since forever. If you have food in one hand and a glass in the other, how do you shake her hand? How do you reach for a business card? You don't. So when mingling, hold one or the other, and do it in your non-handshake hand. No one wants to shake a hand that's clammy from holding a soda.
5. After an event, write down where and when you met a person on the back of their card, along with any pertinent conversation details. I didn't do this after my last AAM conference. Wow, big mistake. I have a pile of business cards and a dozen memories of great conversations, and while I'm pretty sure I can connect the dots, how embarrassing would it be to be wrong? So if you're in a large networking situation like a conference or a workshop, take a few minutes within 24 hours to write a few notes on the back of each card you receive - whatever will help you remember context. I usually do conference, date, panel (if applicable) and a few words about the conversation we had, especially if I want to follow up.
6. Use those contacts after the fact. People don't usually hand out their business cards just to be polite. They're a tool for communication. Use them. Pick a few people with whom you connected, or who you think would be especially helpful to know, and reach out to them in the week or two after you've met them. If they offered to meet for a drink, follow up on that. If you mentioned an article you read recently and they seemed interested, send it to them. Then keep up with it. Don't be obnoxious - if they don't reply, let it go - but don't be afraid to take the first step, either.
7. Plan your clothes like a military campaign, taking into account all the activities of the day. This is really a conference tip. Really think about what you'll be doing in a day: are you sitting in panels? taking tours? getting on and off buses? walking the exhibit hall? are you planning on approaching any of your museum idols? Right up there with picking your panels for the day is making sure you have appropriate shoes and clothes. You really do not want to have a wardrobe malfunction in the middle of a panel you've been dying to attend. That may mean leaving the more stylish clothes at home, but that's ok.
8. Have a story about yourself. Think about what you most want to convey about where you are in your career, what you are seeking at the moment, and where you'd like to go next (do you need a job? an introduction to an organization? more experience in a certain area? advice about your career path?). Put that together into a narrative. Trim it down. Rehearse it a bit, in front of a mirror if you want. As a young professional, you're going to be asked a lot about yourself, and you'll want to have an answer in your toolkit that both conveys who you are and what you're looking for.
9. Informational interviews. These are pretty much the greatest thing since sliced bread. Museum professionals are the best people in the world. They want to help you. They are also human beings who are happy to talk about where they've had successes and failures in life. Make connections, follow up on those connections, and suggest a meeting to talk. Think through what you want to ask and what you want to know. DO NOT go into the interview thinking that if you just show how great you are, they'll hire you. Go in with a pure quest for knowledge and professional friendship. I once met someone who offered to talk to me more about grantwriting at a conference; I followed up; she invited me down for lunch; we had a terrific lunch, I toured her organization's historic houses; I kept in contact and used the resources she'd suggested to learn even more; thus, when it came time for my graduate internship, I chose to spend half my time in development, knew what I was getting into, and had a basic understanding of the job, which was a huge leg up. All because of one great lunchtime conversation.
10. Self-edit. This seems stupid and self-evident, I know. But we all have that one thing we talk too much about, and sometimes a networking situation is warm and friendly, and we're tempted to tell the person we've just met that hilarious story about that one time... Just say no. Be careful and precise about what you say. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Do you have any other networking tips you'd give to young museum professionals? Anything you wish you'd known when starting out?