“Networking is marketing. Marketing yourself, marketing your uniqueness, marketing what you stand for,” said author Christine Comaford-Lynch.

“More business decisions occur over lunch and dinner than at any other time, yet no MBA courses are given on the subject,” said management consultant Peter Drucker.

These giants of the business world agree on one thing — networking is not a luxury but a necessity. If academic qualifications are what get you a foot in the door, then networking is the skill that keeps the door wide open.

Yet for many recent graduates, diving into the deep end of networking events can be intimidating. Here are tricks for your meet-and-greets to go smoothly:

Have a goal

Remember the adage “fail to plan and you have planned to fail”?

For every event that you attend, define your purpose clearly.

What are your immediate needs? Are you looking to expand your clientele? Is there someone whom you intend to recommend?

Given a room of 40 new people, you could target to introduce yourself to 10 of them and discover five whom you may like to meet individually later in the week.

Pay attention, make notes on the back of name cards and remember to follow up promptly.

Keep an open mind

The world is more connected than most people think. According to the six degrees of separation theory, any two people in the world can be connected, in six steps or less.

If you are a marketer of luxury products, do not limit your networking contacts to socialites and millionaires.

By referring plumbers and dry cleaners to your contacts and generally being helpful, your high-flying clients will form a better impression of you.

Look the part

You can make a great impression on anyone you meet by looking the part.

While it is not necessary to invest in a swanky wardrobe, it pays to be well-groomed and conservatively dressed.

If I am being introduced to an aspiring business owner whose attire has obvious creases, I would think twice about referring prospects to him.

I recommend picking out every item of your attire a day or two before the meeting.

Exchange name cards

Networking opportunities are everywhere, so be prepared. Place your name cards in a handy cardholder instead of rummaging through your bag for them.

When presented with a card, accept it respectfully with both hands and study it thoughtfully. Use this opportunity to ask questions about the prospect’s job.

Make notes on the back of the cards to anchor your memory of the person you just met.

Try using his name as you converse: “I enjoyed talking with you, Peter.”

Break the ice

The trick to getting the conversation going is to be interested in the other person.

Good conversationalists do not talk very much; they get others to talk about everybody’s favourite subject — themselves.

Many novices make the blunder of talking a mile a minute and end up surrounding themselves with the equivalent of a firewall.

Focus on the other party by asking him friendly questions.

Steer clear of topics like religion, sexuality and political divides. Remember that you are trying to find commonalities with the person and establish trust. This trust is what future transactions will be based on.

Another common faux pas is jumping to a sales pitch too early in the conversation. You are actually doing yourself a great disservice when you do direct selling while networking at events.

Introduce yourself with panache

Generally, this is an invitation to introduce your profession in some detail. Some business books have termed it “the elevator pitch”.

It  is ideal to keep it between 15 and 30 seconds. Briefly mention what you do, who you help and the key benefits of your product or service.

It is useful to practise this before a networking event and fine-tune it afterwards based on the feedback you received.

Exit with grace

Networking differs from making friends in that you have to circulate (called “working the room” by author Susan RoAne) instead of chatting with one person you like throughout the event.

This can be executed politely and smoothly.

Some lines I like to use are: “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m monopolising you. It’s been nice talking to you. If you’ll excuse me, there’s someone I’d like to say hi to. Shall we catch up over coffee soon?”

Follow-up

Amateurs think that the networking process ends when the last name card has been exchanged.

Far from it! I always make it a point to schedule an hour the morning after the networking event to follow up with all my contacts.

Where appropriate, I initiate further contact, such as scheduling a second meeting over coffee or lunch. This is how meaningful relationships are formed and strengthened over time.

In conclusion, networking is a marketing activity that emphasises long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.

In business, as in life, it is imperative to follow the golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If people in your network feel used or harassed, your reputation will go down.

On the contrary, being positive and helpful will earn you much mileage in terms of people power.

Article by Mervin Yeo, a trainer, consultant and coach on purposeful networking and strategic referral marketing. He is a contributing author of Masters of Networking. For more information, visit http://mervinyeo.com