One of the most common job-hunting mistakes people make is putting the search on hold from Thanksgiving to New Year's. It might seem like entire offices are hibernating, but the truth is, they're at holiday parties. Join them there.
The holiday season, with all its socializing and merry-making, is prime time for networking. Since managers tend to hire people they — and their colleagues — know, networking should play a major role in any job seeker's process.
But don't go blindly to every holiday party you're invited to. To get the most out of each one, you need to develop a strategy.
Start by doing your homework about each event. What type of people are attending — are they likely the type of people you want to meet? If it's for a trade association or professional group, ask the organizer to forward you the list of people who are attending, says Lynne Waymon, co-author of Making Contacts Count. Peruse it to see if anyone's name stands out.
If you're attending a party thrown by a professional organization, look up the name of the group's board of directors before the event. Those are the people you want to meet, because they are heavily involved in the industry and likely have a lot of useful contacts. Other key attendees are the party's hosts. Like members of the board, they know most of the guests and can introduce you. Finally, think about who you met last year and put them on your list of people to chat with. Remembering someone's name goes a long way.
"Good networks are very intentional," says Waymon. "Give a lot of attention to details, especially surrounding names."
Now that you've got a list of people to talk with, make sure to get there on time. Arriving when there are fewer people makes it easier to get time with the party's hosts and the board of directors. For people who feel shy about meeting strangers, getting there while the crowd is small is much easier to manage than entering a room full of 200 partiers already having a good time, says Thom Singer , author of The ABCs of Networking.
Striking up conversation with strangers doesn't come naturally to everyone. But there are ways to make it comfortable. If you arrive on time and say hello to the hosts, also take a minute to say, "I don't know anyone here. Are there people you think I should meet and do you mind introducing me?"
It might sound silly, but there's nothing wrong with introducing yourself to people in the food and drink lines. A common opening line: "How do you know the hosts?" Or, "How long have you been a member of the organization?"
"If you wait for someone else to start talking, you might be waiting all day," says Andrea Nierenberg, who wrote Million Dollar Networking.
Have topics ready to discuss. Ask what they're doing for the holidays, whether they're taking a vacation or what they've been working on lately. "A lot of good connections start in a personal manner," says Nierenberg. "Trust is built as you exchange information and resources. That's what makes people want to hire you or refer you. They want to see your character and competence. Expert conversationalists know how to do that through behavior and conversation."
Don't start a conversation by saying you're unemployed. And certainly don't say that you're at the party to find a new job. Networking is an investment that pays off in the future. "The mistake is people thinking the party is networking," says Singer. "It's not. It's the tool to meet someone." You build the relationship from there.
Focus on the give and take of conversation. The same question is likely to come up throughout the party: What do you do professionally? Have a succinct answer prepared. If you're employed, Nierenberg recommends a few seconds introduction that speaks to your industry. For instance, if you sell software, she recommends saying something like, "I sell software that helps computers talk to each other." First tell them what you do, then mention the organization's name, she says.
If you're unemployed, don't blurt that out. "It's too heavy," says Waymon. "They don't know you well enough to help yet." You've got past work experience, so discuss that. Mention the industry you're in and a few other jobs you've held--briefly. Then say, "I have the wonderful prospect of finding a new position in 2008." Then briefly describe what you're looking for.
Always carry a business card. If you're unemployed, create a card with your name, e-mail and phone number. Business cards can also assist in making a graceful exit; sometimes extricating yourself from a conversation is just as hard as getting into one. An easy way to wrap up a conversation is by saying, "It was great to meet you. May I have your business card?" Or simply try saying, 'I'm going to give you time to talk to other people here.'
If you meet someone you do want to speak more with, ask if he or she would like to continue the conversation over coffee when the holidays are over. If that feels too bold, follow up by answering some type of question that person had. For instance, if you learned he or she is planning a trip to Mexico and you recently went there, send an e-mail with some restaurant recommendations or day-trip ideas.
The payoff on this isn't going to come overnight. Jobs aren't going to come pouring in right after the party — think long term.
Most important, have fun — if you've been job hunting for months, that's exactly what you need.
© 2012 Forbes.com