Networking is really difficult for me but I’ve learned a couple things that have helped make it easier. There’s nothing more terrifying than being thrown into a room full of strangers and then having to pitch your agenda without coming off like a snake. I’m a shy person — I grew up in an environment and culture that emphasized humility and respect… in my family, you just don’t bother other people with your business. But that’s not an acceptable way of thinking when part of my job requires finding and making connections on behalf of the company. I knew I needed to find a networking style that suited my values and personality.

1. Know Your Goal, Do Your Research

Unless you just really enjoy meeting strangers, you’re probably going to a networking event with a specific goal. Most events will have a viewable RSVP list online. Pick the top people you want to meet, and do your research on those individuals. I like to look for things that I have in common with them. It’s a lot easier to break the ice. The whole point is to be genuine, to have a conversation that people want to be a part of. Knowing something about that person helps.

What if you don’t have anything in common? Use the information to ask them questions about their interests. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that people LOVE talking about themselves. Asking specific and knowledgable questions about their interests, and getting them to talk about those things will make the other person feel like an expert. And the best part is that you don’t have to do that much talking — all you have to do is listen and continue asking questions. And they’ll love you for taking an interest.

2. Don’t Be That Guy!

I can guarantee you that most people dread networking. The best ones just never show that fear — and in a way, the last thing you want to do is communicate that fear to the entire room. People display that fear in various ways. You basically need to apply the “don’t be that guy” approach. For example, don’t be the Roamer (the guy who aimlessly walks from one end of the room to another), don’t be the Clinger (the guy who latches onto one person all night),  don’t be the Food Whisperer (the person who projects their fear of networking by making love to the food all night), and don’t be the Drunk. The best way to avoid being that guy? As long as you talk to anyone, about anything, you can avoid being any of those guys.

3. Treat Everyone As If They Have a Blackbelt
Never let your guard down. Anything and everything you say is up for grabs. Everyone is connected to each other in one way or another. Watch what you say and treat everyone with respect.

4. Have An Exit Strategy
Not everyone I meet is relevant or helpful to what I’m trying to accomplish, and vice versa. I used to feel very uncomfortable about breaking off conversations — and I’ve been in conversations that lasted the entire event, just so I could avoid being rude. Truth is everyone at a networking event has a goal — they have people to talk to. After you’ve attended enough events, you’ll be able to avoid the awkward break off, and ask them directly, “So are you looking to meet anyone in particular tonight?” There is always the wave of relief that washes over people’s faces as they realize they don’t have to continue the networky conversation. That releases all the tension, and I’ve always found it easier to talk to people as people after that pressure to network is gone.

5. Remember, You’re Just Hanging Out With People
No one likes networking, so you might as well have fun doing it. I know it’s an easy thing to say, but you have to find a way when your job and your company depend on networking. You need to look at it as if you were there to make new friends. Instead of selling, or trying to make connections, get to know people. To me, that means staying true to my own interests and approaches. Some people are great at schmoozing with large numbers of people. I believe in carefully cultivating relationships with a small number of people. That’s my style, and that’s how I like to get to know people instead of “networking” with them.