We’ve all seen them in action, natural born networkers who can effortlessly work a room, sharing stories and exchanging business cards with someone they met mere seconds before. They make networking look so easy and spontaneous. Effective networking does not, however, need to be limited to extroverts and social butterfly types. You can enhance your networking skills by creating a framework that is complementary to your personality and goals, but also employs some industry-recognized best practices.

First, let’s establish that networking is essential to career development. A Workopolis survey revealed that 43% of respondents ranked networking as their number one strategy to stand out from the crowd. Multiple studies also suggest that employers rank referrals as their top source for new hire volume and quality.
Knowledge of these stats is likely not comforting, or even motivating, to the reluctant networker who hates to “sell” himself and is uncomfortable approaching new people or making small talk.

Don’t overthink things, says Sheila Corriveau, an experienced marketing communications professional who has also managed networking events for International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). “Most of the people in the room are in the same position as you,” says Corriveau. “Make a connection and let the relationship grow organically. Focus on the quality of your connections over the quantity of contacts you make.”

Here are five tips you can use to improve your networking skills, establish new contacts and further enhance your career:

  • Define your networking goals
  • – as with all goal setting, you won’t know whether you have achieved your desired outcome unless you clearly define your goals. Set realistic and specific goals that are compatible with your personality. And remember, networking extends beyond just formal meetings and events. Coffee with an ex-colleague or a phone call with a work vendor both represent opportunities to extend your professional network in a comfortable and relaxed manner.

  • Be realistic – If you are uncomfortable with the thought of meeting new people at large events, you may want to start by connecting with contacts on LinkedIn, or perhaps attending a small industry seminar. Think about networking scenarios where you can build your confidence and develop your skills further. If you are uncomfortable at the thought of attending an event full of strangers, consider tag teaming with a friend or colleague – preferably someone who is outgoing who can help to initiate conversations.
  • Be genuine – Don’t try to be someone you are not. You will make a lasting impression by conveying a positive attitude, self-confidence and an interest in the people you meet. Your intention should be to develop long-term, mutually beneficial relationships built on trust, honesty and respect. “Never hard sell yourself or your services,” says Corriveau. “Tell a story about a professional achievement that is interesting and relevant, and could be of value to a new contact.”
  • Don’t expect anything in return – the old adage the more you give, the more you receive rings especially true in the context of networking. “If you want to develop a relationship with a new connection, think about what is in it for them,” suggests Corriveau. “Can you send them a relevant whitepaper or recommend a supplier to help them with a project they’ve mentioned?” Taking a benevolent approach will also help to take some of the pressure out of networking by shifting the focus to how you can help others.
  • Take a long-term perspective – focus on establishing valuable, long-term connections, not simply collecting stacks of business cards. If you meet a valuable new contact, maintain that connection through LinkedIn, email or over lunch. Think about networking opportunities that are recurring and relationship-driven, such as volunteering for an industry association. “Some of my best connections have been made through IABC,” shares Corriveau. “There were multiple opportunities to get involved at different levels – from taking a board position, to volunteering at an event, to attending the IABC World Conference. By reassessing my involvement each year, I was able to establish new contacts while also broadening my skills.”

By reframing your approach to networking, you can make it an integrated part of your day. Focus on conversations, not contacts. Think about quality, not quantity. Ask questions of new people you meet. Consider which areas of your work interest you and find ways to connect with others who share that same interest. And remember, productive networking is as much about giving as receiving. By establishing goodwill across your network, you will be sowing the seeds for your professional future.