These simple rules of networking will have you working the room like a pro.

Good networking skills can be vital to the growth and success of your business. But if you’re not a natural social butterfly, networking can also be one of the most daunting parts of the job.

To network effectively, you don’t have to be the life of the party at every industry event or client function you attend. Instead, it’s about thinking strategically about the relationships you want to form with the people you meet.

Here are our top tips to help you make the most of opportunities to connect with your peers – and potential clients.

DO be prepared

Before you get serious about networking, you should master your ‘elevator pitch’. This is a short speech about your professional background, your business or your service offering that could be delivered in the time it takes to ride an elevator – around 30 seconds. If you take much longer than that, your listener might lose interest.

Practice your pitch a few times to make sure you can deliver it in a confident, engaging way. But at the same time, it needs to come across as natural and authentic rather than memorised and rehearsed. And don’t forget to carry business cards, so people can get in touch with you later if they want to find out more.

DO have a plan

If you leave your networking efforts to chance, you might not end up meeting the people you really want to connect with. It’s a good idea to do some research before attending an event, and social media can be a useful tool for finding out who else is likely to be there.

You might also want to set yourself a clear networking goal – for instance, by making a point of talking to three key people at the next event. Since your time (and theirs) is limited, you’ll need to be selective about your choices. But once you get into the swing of networking, it will be much easier to speak to the same person again the next time your paths cross.

DO look presentable

First impressions matter, and dressing the part can give you a confidence boost when you’re meeting new people. So whatever the occasion, always pay attention to the dress code: if the invitation says black tie, don’t try to get away with business casual. If your outfit is inappropriate for the situation – or if it’s rumpled or dirty – your audience is more likely to focus on your clothing than your conversation.

But appearance is about more than just wearing the right duds; your body language can also say a lot about you. That’s why it’s important to avoid gestures that could be considered rude, like folding your arms defensively while someone is talking to you.

DO ask questions

Most of us like to talk about ourselves, so the simplest way to spark a connection with someone new is by asking them questions. Not only does this show you’re interested in what they have to say, it also helps you gather information about who they are and what they do.

Listen attentively to their answers then ask thoughtful follow-up questions, because it will soon become pretty obvious if you start to tune out. And of course, smiles and eye contact can go a long way towards winning someone over.

DO follow up

A great networking conversation is one thing, but what’s even more important is to keep the connection alive. A day or two after an event, you might consider emailing the people you met and connecting with them on LinkedIn. If they reply, you could suggest having a coffee or business lunch with those you want to get to know better.

Think about whether there is something you can offer your new contact to start the relationship on the right foot. For example, they might benefit from an introduction to someone else in your network. Professional relationships are a two-way street – so if you help them out now, they’ll be more inclined to return the favour when the time comes.

DON’T be nervous

While facing a room full of strangers can be intimidating, it helps to remember that you’re not the only one who feels that way. People are generally happy to be approached, and many will appreciate someone else taking the first step. Another useful tip is to show up for the event on time, because it’s often easier to strike up conversations with other early arrivals rather than waiting until the event is already in full swing.

If you’re especially shy, you might be tempted to only talk to people you already know, but this won’t help you grow your network. And if you fly solo at professional events, you’ll be more motivated to introduce yourself to others. However, if it’s an event where alcohol is served, be careful not to overindulge as a way of calming your nerves.

DON’T sell

If there’s one golden rule of networking, it’s to avoid doing the hard sell. While it’s perfectly reasonable to give your elevator pitch, it’s probably unwise to start trying to negotiate a deal with someone you’ve just met.

People attending professional events aren’t expecting to do business on the spot, and they certainly won’t appreciate being cornered by a stranger pushing their own agenda. So instead of looking to walk away from an event with a new client or referral partner, take a long-term view of how you can open the door to relationships that could bear fruit later down the track.

And remember, networking isn’t something you should only do once in a blue moon. To become a networking master, you need to be making the most of every opportunity that comes your way so you can develop meaningful professional relationships that will deepen over time.