You already attend to certain tasks before a holiday party: You RSVP, you decide on a great outfit, and you find a fabulous hostess gift.
But this year, may we suggest adding a little conversation prep to your pre-party checklist?
If the word “networking” makes you want to curl up in ball with a bad holiday sweater, here’s the good news: We’re not suggesting small talk for the sake of being polite. Rather, we’re talking about taking advantage of the time you’re spending outside the office with friends, family, colleagues, and clients.
Read on for our guide to the most common holiday get-togethers and how to make the most of them for your career.
The Event: The Staff Holiday Lunch
Your Networking Game Plan: Sit Next to Someone You’d Like to Work With More Closely
At the company’s daytime holiday party, your first instinct may be to sit next to the colleagues you click with naturally.
But here’s the deal: If you can grab happy hour with them anytime, save your bonding for then. Take this opportunity to sit next to someone you’d like to work more closely with—maybe someone you’re hoping to collaborate with on an upcoming project or that colleague who always seems just a bit too busy to brainstorm.
And—while it may sound counterintuitive—skip the work chat, and use this time to ask them where they’re spending the holidays or what their favorite dish is this time of year. Your goal is to build a connection with someone on a personal level that will motivate him or her to make more time to hear your work ideas later. Once you’ve chatted for a while, you can mention you’d love to get a meeting on the calendar.
The Event: The Multi-Stakeholder Office Party
Your Networking Game Plan: Know Key Stats
Whether your co-attendees are clients, donors, or staff from other organizations, your goal at these large events is to be a shining ambassador for your company.
Likely to bump into a board member who always asks how things are on the other coast? Imagine how competent you’ll look (and how confident you’ll feel) beginning with a story about a recent event out there. Eye a client you’ve been dying to connect with? Feel free to begin with holiday topics, but be armed with some numbers on your latest projects.
Remember, the large office party is an opportunity for you to put a face to your email signature, and knowing your stuff will make you memorable (in the best way).
The Event: The Family Holiday Dinner
Your Networking Game Plan: Explain What You Do (And What You’d Like to Do)
Why should you talk to your aunt (a first-grade teacher) or your cousin’s new boyfriend (who’s in finance) about your work optimizing websites?
Because family counts as a part of your network. Your aunt’s dear friend or your cousin’s former colleague might be a great contact for you to have—but you’ll never know if you shy away from talking about your work. And if you’re on the job hunt and just hoping to dodge questions about your employment status, think again. Instead, choose to talk about your skills, and what you hope to be doing.
Then, follow up with a simple, “know anyone?” At the very least, you’ll be connecting with your family (on a subject other than your love life), and at best, you may get some new leads and emails.
The Event: The Friend’s Cocktail Party
Your Networking Game Plan: Introduce Yourself to the New Faces
You’re always at work, and finally, it’s time to let your hair down after hours. Sure, you can spend your friend’s infamous party dancing away with your besties, but you can also use it to make new, local contacts.
It’s easier than you think. Just make yourself say hello to at least one person you’ve never seen before, ask her how she knows the host, and then ask her what she does for a living. She’ll respect that you’re going out of your way to say hello to the new girl, and in such a non-office environment, will likely feel more comfortable answering questions like what the hours are really like in her field.
Holiday gatherings are a great opportunity to build relationships and to make new connections (we’re looking at you, job seekers). By spending even a small part of each event reaching out and talking to someone new, you’ll be building your network and making contacts to extend into next year.
Sara McCord is a freelance writer and editor, who most frequently covers the career beat. For nearly three years, she was an editor at The Muse, and she's regularly contributed career advice to Mashable. Her advice has been published across the web (Forbes, Newsweek, Fast Company,TIME, Inc., Business Insider, CNBC and more). Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. Learn more and send her a note through her website, or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author