March 10, 2015

Networking Advice: Navigating Conversations at Receptions

By: Peter Redpath

If you’re attending receptions, especially as an unemployed job seeker, portray confidence. Who wants an unconfident lawyer, policy analyst, etc. after all? The first question that everyone knows you’re asked in DC is almost always “What do you do?” I’ve noticed that a lot of people hate that about DC and job seekers, in particular, go into their shells like turtles when asked this question.

NetworkRefuse to cower if you get this question. Some get bent out of shape about this inquiry since they believe it’s superficial. And some really don’t like it when they’re unemployed because it makes them feel like they just got smoked out. “Oh no, I’ve been found out! They know I’ve come here to try to find a job!” they think. I really don’t believe people mean the “What do you do?” question superficially. I think they’re just trying to figure out who you have in common like when someone looks up mutual friends on Facebook.

If you think about it, “What do you do?” is actually a great question for you as a job seeker or someone looking to advance your career. You get to tell your conversation partner what sorts of opportunities you’re looking for, so have a little spiel prepared. “I actually just graduated from law school and relocated to DC to look for work on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Counsel or with a conservative or libertarian public interest litigating group. What about yourself? Where are you from? What do you do?”

At receptions, I always like to ask people where they’re from. Most people like their hometown and enjoy telling you about it. Additionally, it puts them in a good mood and allows more arenas of conversation to open up besides the usual law and politics we’re so accustomed to in DC. Now that you’re talking about your conversation partner’s hometown, you can always talk about sports, rib them about their inferior Chicago-style pizza, etc.

If you’re unemployed (and that could happen to any of us in this economy), absolutely do not tell others that you want “any job” when they ask you what you want to do. Besides making it sound like you don’t know what on earth you want to do with your life, it does nothing to focus the listener and if that was really the case, you wouldn’t be looking. You’d be stocking shelves somewhere or flipping burgers.

The key is to be broad, yet specific. “In an ideal world, I’d be working on labor issues at Department of Labor or National Right to Work, but I’m also interested in event planning and scheduling.” That immediately hones the listener. What you want to do is get their synapses firing. “Who do I know at DOL and NRTW? Do I know any conference planners at CPAC, Values Voters Conference or any Congressional offices with openings or people this person can listen to?” Hopefully your broad yet specific description results in some new friends sharing leads with you. “Oh, you really should talk to my good buddy John! He used to work at DOL and he can tell you all about how to apply and which offices to target.”

If you have a pleasant conversation that lasts a few minutes, ask your conversation partner for his card. If he wants yours, he will ask for it. A day or two later (2 days max), send an email letting him know you enjoyed meeting him and you hope to remain in contact. If there’s a good way to follow up beyond that, do so. So if you talked about what a great season the Nats are having, forward your new friend an article about the Nationals upcoming schedule, an article about Bryce Harper, etc. Wait for a response.

Another thing! Don’t toss out those business cards you collect at receptions. When you arrive home, get in the habit of writing on the back of the business cards you’ve collected. Jot down anything you can remember about the person, his line of work, your conversation, etc. If you hear from him and receive a cordial response, feel free to add your new friend on LinkedIn and Facebook. Stay tuned for more about LinkedIn next week…


Peter Redpath is Vice President and Director of the Student Division at the Federalist Society. This is the third reprint in a series, based on his remarks at the AFF Networking Lunch in November 2012.