If you think that networking is: (1) something you’ve outgrown; (2) pushy, pathetic or painful; (3) about just exchanging business cards; or (4) not working for you–then today could be a life-changing day.

Here are some tips for better networking.

First, network all the time, everywhere and with everyone. Before you pass out a business card, send information, or overwhelm a prospect with your knowledge or substance, you have to connect–to build a relationship.

Have you ever gone to a networking function and seen someone holding a fresh stack of his business cards in one hand as he hands them out like a Las Vegas dealer? No doubt, most of those business cards ended up in the trash because there was no connection first. Why should I care about your card when I don’t know who you are?

How do you define networking? It’s not just meeting and greeting. It’s not collecting shoeboxes full of business cards. It’s not pushing. It’s not selling. In fact, it’s helping. My favorite definition is: Networking is building long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships for information exchange.

Let’s examine that definition. Building long-lasting relationships means keeping in touch, finding common interests, showing respect, building trust–all the factors that it takes to build, maintain and nurture every relationship.

Building mutually beneficial relationships means giving as well as getting. That means asking, “What can I do for you? How can I be helpful to you and your business? Who are your clients? Whom can I refer to you?”

One reason people don’t like to network is because they are givers, and some people with whom they network are takers. After a while, takers use you up. Don’t be one of those takers. Remember to give value to your networking partners.

Networking is for information exchange. That could be leads. That could be industry updates. That could be where to get the best pizza. We network for many reasons. It could be professional or personal. It’s not selling; it’s helping.

My Four Best Ideas

1. Play the host. Wherever you are, act as if it’s your party. If you invited diverse people to your home who didn’t necessarily know each other, you wouldn’t sit in the corner and hope they met each other. You’d introduce them to each other, find something they have in common, and put them at ease.

I find that most people are shy, so when you play the host, help them over that hurdle. Put them at ease and you’ll be memorable. Also, it gives you a role to play. When you go into a room of strangers with a role, you’re more at ease and able to meet and connect with people.

If you’re seated at a table where you don’t know everyone, play the host and suggest you go around the table and introduce yourselves. You’ll put everyone at ease and be considered a leader.

2. Be visible. Be active in every group you’re a part of. Who here likes to speak in public? Do more of this. Who here writes articles? You can establish yourself as an expert on life insurance. Introduce a speaker. Blog. Hang out where your clients are.

Ask questions or comment during a session. Give your name, company and location when you speak at a meeting. Stand up to speak. Now someone in the far corner can more easily find you to share ideas after the meeting or session.

3. Follow up. This is where networking often falls down. What do you do to follow up? How many of you write handwritten notes? Since so few people do this, you will stand out. I’ve seen my notes pinned on the bulletin boards in people’s offices.

One tip is to send postcards to clients, contacts, and prospects when you’re at a conference telling them you are learning things that will help them. In fact, you can do that from here. Postcards always get read because they don’t have to be opened. Picture postcards of the location are exciting for people to receive.

4. Get over your fear of rejection. If someone doesn’t want to network with you, which I’ve never seen happen, it’s just a difference in agendas. Or maybe the timing isn’t right. Don’t give up. Just keep in touch in different ways over time. Remember, it takes time to build relationships.

Ten Mistakes to Avoid

There are 10 mistakes you don’t want to make when networking. You already know number 10: Have no more one-night stands. The others.

10: Have no more one-night stands. The others

9. Thinking networking is all about “me.”

8. Not having a plan when you network.

7. Not taking advantage of every networking activity.

6. Not being visible.

5. Not having a way to keep track of your contacts and actions.

4. Not knowing what you want and what you can give.

3. Not listening.

2. Not following up.

And, the number 1 networking mistake that you don’t want to make:

1. Not networking when you have a secure job and lots of business.

Expanding Your Influence

Perhaps you feel that you have enough contacts already. Or perhaps you’d like more. Here’s how you can expand your sphere of influence.

There have been studies done that show that each person has approximately 250 people in his or her sphere of influence. That means you know 250 people who know you by name. Let’s look at why your sphere of influence is so powerful.

I have a sphere of 250 people. In it are family, friends, coworkers and bosses from past employment, my kids’ friends and parents, the people I know through associations and organizations, school friends, friends of my parents and siblings, people in my building, neighbors, my dentist, my beautician, and on and on.

You have a sphere of 250 people, too. Imagine that you and I decide to have our spheres intersect. Now how many people are in my sphere of influence? It’s a lot more than 250 plus 250, or 500. If each person in my sphere has 250 people in his sphere and each person in your sphere has 250, that’s a total of 125,000 contacts in our expanded spheres of influence. Think of the power in this room!

Building Relationships

When you meet someone and introduce yourself:

Affirm the other person. Smile. Tell the person you’re glad to meet him or her. Acknowledge something about the person. “I see you are from Hong Kong. That’s an interesting city.” Or, “That’s an unusual pin.”

Find and confirm what you have in common. For instance, “Were you at the MDRT conference last year?” (Pause for an answer.) “Me, too.”

Uplift. Don’t drag people down. Even if you’ve had the worst year ever, don’t share that when you meet someone. Put a smile on your face; think of something positive to share with people you meet. No one wants to be with a downer.

Disclose something about yourself. It can be as simple as saying, “I’ve always liked meeting at this hotel;” “My children go to that school, too;” or, “I went to high school in Vancouver.” Make sure the conversation is a dialogue and not a monologue.

The main thing is that each person wants to feel good after a transaction with you. If they feel diminished, you’ve missed the mark. Often, people wonder how to start a conversation with a stranger.

Say goodbye gracefully. Examples: “Let’s circulate. I’ll introduce you to…” Or “Great meeting you–I’ll send you that article I mentioned.” It’s important to not get stuck talking with one person. Shake hands, ask for his or her card and move on.

Karen Susman is a Denver, Colo.-based speaker, author and coach. You may e-mail her at karen@karensusman.com. This is an abridged version of a presentation she gave at the MDRT annual meeting in Vancouver.