Do you belong to your industry's membership association? Are you regularly attending their events, even when you're not seeking employment? Do you support that association by volunteering? If not, you're missing out on some excellent opportunities to make important business connections.

Networking events are mutually beneficial occasions where you get to share referrals, ideas, and information. Your goal at every networking event should be to generate quality leads, not just to talk to as many people as possible. A few mutually beneficial interactions is far better than a large number of unproductive ones. Here are some tips that will help you make the most of networking opportunities:

1. Honor the RSVP

Don't decide to attend an event at the last minute and show up unexpectedly. That's why RSVPs were created. Many events are catered, so it's important for those who've done the planning to know exactly how many people will be attending. In some cases, name tags and formal placecards are created for attendees. By showing up "unannounced," you've placed yourself and the host in an awkward position - not to mention created a bad impression.

2. Identify your purpose for attending

How will you benefit? What are the professional payoffs? What are the personal payoffs? Is it worth the effort? Know who is sponsoring the event and who you will likely meet there. If there are specific people with whom you would like to talk, write their names down. Set goals for yourself.

3. Attend the event with a buddy

If it's you're first time attending a networking event or you're anxious, consider attending with a friend or associate. When you arrive with a buddy, entrances are not nearly so intimidating. You and your friend can introduce one another and save each other from tedious or over-long conversations. Don't be too attached to your buddy though. Remember, you are there to meet NEW people.

4. Arrive on time

Do not stroll in fashionably late. That may be okay for a cocktail party, but not a networking event. Your tardiness will give off the impression that you're lazy or don't care - not an impression you want to be making to possible employers or contacts.

5. Practice your handshake

When making your introduction, shake hands firmly, assertively and cordially. A strong handshake will show that you are confident and self-assured.

6. Focus on others

Approach everyone you meet from the standpoint of what you can do for them. You don't want to sound too pushy or needy. If you focus only on your own career goals and what you want, you may miss out on a possible opportunity. Remember, everyone at the event has a reason for being there. Make it your mission to find out that reason and see if their reason matches yours.

7. Avoid awkward moments

Forget someone's name? Invariably you will run into someone you met at a previous event whose face looks very familiar but you "just can't place it." This "nightmare moment" is easily handled by simply approaching the person and stating your name first. Most people will reply in kind. Questions such as "Do you remember me?" are to be avoided as they put people on the spot and sound presumptuous.

8. Be prepared

Before arriving at the event, practice your elevator pitch. You can be sure someone will ask you, "what do you do?" Have your answer ready, so that you're not caught off guard and stumbling for words. Also come prepared with a healthy stock of business cards and keep them in a spot where you can retrieve them easily.

9. Strategically share business cards

Pass out your cards selectively. Don't give your cards to everyone who crosses your path. You'll want cards from people with whom you've made a connection--people in your field who can and are willing to do something for you and you for them. Ask for business cards rather than offering yours.

10. Relax and enjoy

Let your personality come out. Don't try to be overly professional. You need to remember that at least half of those attending the event are nervous and uncertain as well, and they may not be nearly as prepared as you are. Contrary to what you might assume from the way they look, they're praying that someone like you will come up and talk to them.

11. Say thank you

If there is a clearly designated host for the event, make sure you connect with that person briefly before leaving to express your appreciation and say thank you. If this isn't possible, always send a thank you note (handwritten, preferred). This is common courtesy and shows that you appreciate the business opportunity that was provided. You might want to briefly touch base with anyone else who might have provided a contact, referral or important piece of information.

12. Follow up

After the event, make sure you follow up with any contacts you made and are interested in pursuing. An email or phone call is not inappropriate. You never know where you next career opportunity will come from.