Having a solid group of professional associates is a definite benefit. It lets us find a job faster, identify a fabulous recruit more easily, and stay current with industry trends and changes more smoothly.

But many of us would rather spend a sunny Saturday cleaning the attic than go to a professional event and network. A search on Google for the words “network” and “hate” pulls up more than 59 million hits in .31 seconds. Yikes!

Here’s how to make a networking event less stressful, more valuable, and more fun.

1. Take advantage of technology, beforehand

Many professional events with electronic registration also show a list of the names and companies of those who’ve signed up to attend. Check for familiar names. Or for people you might have heard about and wanted to meet. Or to learn the affiliations of those planning to come.

2. Get your bearings

Before you go, you should also know, at the least, who’s hosting the event and why. Those details will give you significant insight into the size of the gathering, the formality of it, and the structure (such as whether there’s a meal, a program, extra time to mingle before the event actually starts—and so on).

Surprises make many people a bit jumpy. If you do some legwork ahead of time, it lets you know what to expect.

3. Set a modest goal before you get there

This might be that you want to meet and talk with two different sales prospects; learn something specific about their businesses and challenges, as well as a hobby of theirs.

4. Go

If you don’t turn up, you gain nothing. When you put it on your schedule, make the effort to get to the event. Think of it as a work commitment (which, actually, it is.)

5. Listen more than you talk

When you really listen to someone, it naturally leads to something else to ask. That trick can let you almost effortlessly step into a conversation with someone you might have just met. They are, after all, opening the door and letting you in by telling you about something that matters to them.

6. Present yourself as someone you’d like to meet

People like to be around others who show some warmth. They just do. It takes some energy, sure. But it’s just for an hour or two. Since you’re making the effort to be there, be sure to dial down the dour and amp up the authenticity. That way, you’ll have an easier time chatting with folks—they’ll want to chat with you, too.

7. Think of it as a treasure hunt

Bear with me on this one, please, because I’m sure some (many?) of you are rolling your eyes. Unexpectedly, I found three clients within the past year at professional networking events. By meeting people and asking them about their business and their challenges, it is absolutely possible to discover opportunities where they could use your skills.

Every professional event could lead to something of value, if you choose to view it like that.

8. Ask questions that take more than “yes” or “no” to answer

This technique is a skill that gets easier with practice. It keeps a conversation going. It keeps the other person talking. And it increases the chance you’ll find something that sparks a true two-way chat. Not every time, of course. But more often than doubters might suspect.

9. Don’t rush to exchange cards

Networking is not about passing out business cards. It’s about finding connections that help people mutually expand and deepen their professional relationships and opportunities. It’s sales, really. The card exchange should be more like closing the deal than walking through the door.

10. But make sure you have your cards

Yes, I get that most of us are, or should be, on LinkedIn. We have digital lives that theoretically should supersede the paper tradition of the business card.

Except that’s not the case. At a professional event, take business cards. Otherwise, it could look like you are unemployed or ill-prepared or so haughty that you expected no one at the event would pique your professional interest enough to deserve your card. Yuck.

11. What if you’re unemployed or underemployed?

You also need professionally printed, good-looking business cards with your contact details. You also need to prepare a script, of sorts. Have ready a few brief, points that present yourself, your background and your skills professionally. Practice these (perhaps in front of a trusted friend). Make sure you’ve got the hang of sounding confident.

Then remember the tips about listening, asking questions that take more than one-word answers and considering the event a treasure hunt. These might help you unearth your next great job or at least a solid lead on one.

12. Gracefully giving the slip

Have a plan in place for smoothly leaving a conversation. Sooner or later, some version of these two scenarios will happen to you at a networking event: You’re bored senseless by the gal who’s been whining about her boss and… (what else was she talking about, again?)? Or, you need to escape from the self-centered guy who’s all but pinned you up against the table with cheese puffs, bragging about himself.

Script some exit lines for yourself. Hold out your hand and say something such as: “It’s been nice chatting. I really ought to give you some time to mingle and meet some others here.”

13. Pursue possibilities promptly

Say that you do meet someone who you think might lead to a new client or job. Or someone you really hit it off with and want to incorporate into your professional network. Don’t just file away their card and forget it. Send a note through LinkedIn or an email within 24 hours. That makes an impression and sets you apart—in a good way. And that’s one of the main reasons to attend a networking event in the first place.

I am an extrovert. And I like sales and business development. But these 12 tips will help anyone—even quiet types who really dread these events—make them more productive. Seven of the 12 relate to preparation before the event or follow up afterwards. They can help these events yield much more value and cause much less anxiety.

Do you buy that? Let me know, either way. Just don’t pin me up against the table with the cheese puffs.

Becky Gaylord worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Sydney, before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC. You can read Becky’s blog Framing What Works.

Republished with permission, courtesy of 12 Most.

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