Few words elicit as much anxiety for young professionals as “networking.” It’s time to leave your conceptions of inauthentic small talk behind in favor of these six easy, actionable tips for stronger professional connections. Read on for your hassle-free guide to networking success.

1. Make time to spend with people.

Although LinkedIn and Twitter can help you identify new business contacts and keep in touch with former colleagues, you can’t get the most out of networking from behind your desk. At its core, networking requires you to take time to engage with people you wouldn’t normally see throughout the course of your work day. Whether it’s through your industry’s professional association, a board membership, non-profit volunteer work or a social group (i.e. a breakfast club or professional luncheon), get out of the office.

If building this into your schedule sounds stressful, relax. Many employers encourage networking and will appreciate an offer to represent the company at an industry meeting or highbrow happy hour. If there’s an event you want to attend, such as a Creative Mornings lecture, ask your supervisor about your company’s protocol for networking events. You will likely find that your company will happily give you time to attend these meetings.

2. Don’t wait until you need something.

If you’re sitting pretty at your dream job, it may be tempting to put off networking or ignore it all together. However, there are plenty of solid reasons to network beyond just the job search. Your participation in events builds brand awareness and forms connections that can lead to new business or mutually-beneficial partnerships. Rather than working an agenda, you will feel infinitely more relaxed at your next networking happy hour if you approach it as an opportunity to meet new people and enjoy their company.

Plus, it’s much easier to build connections when you don’t reek of desperation. People will be less interested in getting to know you if it’s clear that you immediately want something from them or their company in return.

3. Practice your elevator pitch.

While you shouldn’t approach a networking event by plotting what you can mine from each attendee, you should be ready to offer your own strengths and assistance to the people you meet. Andrew Vest of Young Entrepreneur Council recommends that you “get clear on what talents, strengths, skill sets and connections you can bring to the table.” Make it easy for new connections to remember the types of problems you can help them with – they may call on you in the future if the need arises.

Rehearse your 10-second introduction speech with a close friend or trusted colleague. Next time you meet a potential business contact, you will feel confident and comfortable knowing you have this mini elevator pitch in your back pocket.

4. Focus on quality over quantity.

If you approach networking events as competitions to see who can collect the most business cards, you’re doing it wrong. All those cards will be worthless if the people don’t remember meeting you. Instead of bouncing around the room like a well-dressed tornado, stick to a simple, achievable goal, for example, getting to know five new people or reconnecting with three prior contacts.

Author Andrew Sobel explains to Inc. that highly successful professionals tend to have a group of a “critical few” contacts that make the most difference in their careers. It’s advantageous to keep up with this select group of quality contacts regularly (reach out two or three times per year), rather than trying to get 20 new names every time you attend an event.

When you’re looking to build up your own “critical few” list, don’t dismiss people with lower-level titles, simply because you’re focused on landing a high-powered connection. The people who actively network early on in their careers will likely rise into influential positions within five to ten years. Develop a relationship now at the ground level. It’s much easier than trying to win them over later when everyone wants their time and attention.

5. Be generous with your time and resources.

Always ask how you can help. While the other person may not have a job or problem in mind immediately, this eagerness to share your expertise may prompt them to give you a call should they need assistance in the future.

Although reciprocity goes a long way in the business world, don’t approach your network as an opportunity to call in favors tit-for-tat. Professionals naturally want to help those who have helped them in the past, but will recoil from situations that feel laden with an obligation to return the favor.

6. Don’t forget to follow up.

If you feel that you have developed a rapport with another attendee by the end of an event, don’t shy away from asking the best way to get in touch again. Whether it’s connecting through LinkedIn, sending a quick Tweet or calling her personal assistant, know how you can reach out in the future. For the best results, follow up immediately to solidify the connection and get into her contact list ASAP.

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