We’ve talked about why networking is so important to a small business, and about the crucial attitude a successful networker cultivates — one of generous curiosity and positivity. Today, we’ll talk about your strategies for networking success.

Before the Event

For the best bang for your buck, do your research ahead of time. This might be a casual effort before a local chamber of commerce event, or a bigger project before a conference. Find out who will be presenting or offering workshops or other resources, and look them up. What are they known for? What industry are they experts in? What books or articles have they written?

Likewise, learn about your fellow attendees. You may discover that some of them have knowledge or experience you’d love to hear more about. You may learn that some of them would benefit from your knowledge or experience. Some may be connected with you already, via LinkedIn or a professional organization.

Make a mental (or even a physical) list of people you’d like to meet at the event, and keep your eye out for them. You might see their company’s name on another person’s nametag. That’s the perfect opportunity to strike up a conversation and ask for an introduction, and you’ll impress both parties as engaged and proactive.

If you’re really eager to meet someone, reach out ahead of time by email, phone or LinkedIn to suggest a meeting. If they’re an existing contact, you’ll cement the relationship. If they’re someone new to you, time spent face-to-face is invaluable.

Don’t forget to come with plenty of business cards, a pen and a notepad or your phone.

Also, bring some conversation starters: prepare a few ice breaker questions or topical comments. Beginning a conversation can be as simple as “How did you enjoy the presentation?” or “How about those Yankees?”

Networking DURING the event

If you’re a reluctant networker, try making a game out of it. Set a goal that’s within your control, such as “tonight, I’ll talk to five new people.” Feel like you’re in a rut? Challenge yourself with a simple and silly rule, like “tonight I’ll talk to everyone wearing green.”

When you’re introduced to new people, say their name immediately and in conversation. You’ll remember their names more easily while demonstrating that you’re engaged, which will leave them feeling good about themselves and about you.

Be generous with your time and attention. Help others connect by introducing and referring people. Ask questions and listen sincerely to the replies. Ask for introductions: people like to feel helpful.

If you really want to telegraph a sense of availability, keep your hands free. People are subconsciously reluctant to interrupt you, so they’ll be more prone to approach you if you aren’t preoccupied with anything at all, especially your phone.

Networking AFTER the Event

It’s not over when it’s over! Follow up promptly after the event. Thank the host, and thank whoever you invited you. Share a tidbit when you do so–ideally something useful to them. Otherwise, briefly share something you learned or otherwise gained from the event.

You definitely want to follow up on any promises you made: to share a resource, make an introduction, or just get in touch. However, this is NOT the time for any sales tactics, which are likely to alienate your new acquaintances. Instead, simply focus on building a relationship.

General Networking Strategies

Tend carefully to your premium relationships with movers and shakers, and cultivate your radar for recognizing mover and shakers on their way up. Don’t dismiss anyone: the intern might be in the corner office one day, or might be doing the hiring across the desk from you in a few years.

Be ready to seize opportunities: a referral, a request for your product/service, or a potential collaboration could arise at any time, so be ready to think on your feet. (And do your homework! Refer to step one, above.)

Most of all, try to make it fun. The most powerful tool at your disposal is a relaxed, easy and genuine demeanor. The key to feeling relaxed and at ease is being well prepared; genuinely curious about the people you meet; and getting some practice in the networking game.