Most of us don't welcome the thought of walking into a room of strangers and trying to make a positive impression. Very few people are born great networkers. It's a skill that must be improved with practice.

The benefits of networking are many: potential clients, an opportunity to promote your business, a forum to practice your social skills and business connections that can last a lifetime. In this post, we'll show you how to prepare for a networking event, work a room, put yourself out there and generate the leads that count.

The Art of Conversation

The primary objective of working a room is to establish rapport with people through warm, sincere and animated conversations. Out of this rapport, great professional relationships are born. Here are a few tips to have meaningful conversations:

1. Prepare and practice your introduction

When someone follows up with the inevitable, "So, what do you do?" have a response that's concise, natural and interesting. Here's an example: "I'm a freelance web designer. I specialize in helping small businesses develop a brand identity that they express through their website."

2. Speak your name clearly

If you have a difficult last name, use only your first name or repeat your first and last name a second time. The key is to be remembered.

3. Break the ice

There's always something interesting to learn about somebody, even if you've just been introduced. Why are they attending? Who did they come with? Why are they members of this association? Do they attend many of these functions? What do they hope to get out of the event? Do they know any of the other attendees? Even a mild compliment about a person's broach or necktie, or a passing observation about a book that they're reading can be a conversation-starter. Be observant. Always try to make the conversation about the listener rather than about you.

4. Practice active listening

Give the person you are speaking to your undivided attention. Don't start scoping the room for other prospects. The surest turn-off is to broadcast that you're "working the room." Instead of using the networking event to sell yourself, look at it as an opportunity to learn something. Try to be interested as opposed to interesting.

5. Don't be a leech

Know when to end the conversation and move on. Introductory conversations should be no more than 10 minutes. Don't monopolize someone's time. You can always touch base with the person later in the evening if you wish. Have three or four "conversation-ending" phrases memorized. Here are a few possibilities:

  • I know you're here to meet new people, so I won't take up all of your time.
  • It was nice meeting you.
  • It was nice talking to you. Good luck with your job search (or vacation, wedding, etc.)
  • I'm sure we'll meet at another function in the future.
  • I hope you enjoy the rest of the (party, conference, workshop, meeting, etc.)

6. Be aware of your non-verbal cues

You communicate with your body language as much as, if not more than, with your words. If you shuffle about, give a limp handshake or stare at the floor, you probably won't make a very good impression. A direct gaze, firm handshake and engaging, confident smile will win people over every time.

7. Focus on small talk

Have three pieces of small facts about yourself prepared ahead of time. Do you have a favorite hobby, sport, vacation experience, etc.? These pleasantries don't have to be profound, just sincere. You'd be amazed at what you can integrate into a conversation. Launching right into shoptalk will bore and exasperate people. Keep the dialogue light and fun; nothing too deep, too probing or too intimate. Stay abreast of current events, and try to avoid controversial topics such as religion or politics. Basically, any subject that makes people feel more comfortable and at ease is fair game. You are much more interesting than you give yourself credit for!

The 30-Second Commercial

For job seekers, the 30-second commercial, sometimes called "the elevator pitch," is essential. You want your name and face to pop into people's minds when they need a particular service. Your pitch should basically be a summary of your resume, focusing on 3-4 key points designed to attract someone's attention. Although you will have spent some time refining and practicing it, your pitch should come across as unrehearsed and spontaneous. Here's an example:

"Hi, my name is Helene Davis. I'm a print traffic coordinator. I serve as a liaison between my company's creative and production departments. I make sure print projects are produced on time, within budget and at the highest possible quality. It's a great job, because I can really make things happen. I love delivering a final product people can be proud of."

If you're seeking employment, now is a good time to ask, "Who in your company would be charged with hiring a person with those types of skills?" Don't be shy about writing down the lead, and don't forget to jot down the name of the person you're speaking to so that you can use it as a "referral."

Networking Blunders

Good manners equals good business. The most important thing to remember as you network is to be polite and courteous. This means having a regard for the feelings of others. Here are some networking faux pas:

  • Inappropriate jokes, stories, language or dress
  • Buzzwords or highly technical terms
  • Loud, conspicuous behavior
  • Excessive eating or drinking
  • Sitting, fidgeting or responding to distractions
  • Complaining about anything or anyone
  • Pushing your own agenda to the exclusion of everything else
  • Controlling the conversation or overwhelming the listener with a barrage of questions
  • Deciding who to talk to based on their title or perceived importance
  • Being a wallflower