I HATE small talk. The word “networking” used to fill me with a cold, creeping dread. But I’ve made great freelancing contacts by learning how to network painlessly – and it doesn’t take much effort! A few tips can get you far.

Don’t “work” the whole room

You needn’t meet, greet, and network with EVERYONE in the room. That’s what politicians do – but they’re often looking for mass appeal more than genuine connection. Opt for quality interactions over quantity.

When you walk into a networking event, take a minute to read the room. If you know somebody at a networking event, it’s fine to gravitate initially towards your acquaintance – say hi and catch up! But don’t get glued to their side; be open to meeting new people. If they can introduce you to anyone, even better. A mutual acquaintance is an automatic icebreaker.

If you don’t know anybody in the room, check out body language. Aim for groups with open postures – people with their bodies turned towards to the room, who aren’t huddled in corners. Follow your instincts – if you get a nasty vibe from someone, avoid them. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself!

Parties, social events, and other networking shindigs can feel like seventh-grade cafeterias because our inner awkward adolescents come out, but people expect to meet new folks. You won’t be considered a weirdo just for saying hello.

Ask questions

It’s easy to feel self-conscious in networking scenarios. Feeling that you need to make your personal elevator pitch to each new person you meet has the potential to be paralyzing (not to mention exhausting), and “selling” yourself to strangers can feel downright icky out of context.

The best way to relieve yourself of these burdens is to shift the focus elsewhere. In fact, the very practice that makes for a good first date can make for an ideal networking experience: take interest in the other person, for crying out loud!

Displaying curiosity about people’s backgrounds and careers is not only the best way to keep those folks engaged and feeling valued, but it also allows you to organically volunteer information while having, y’know, an actual conversation. We always learn more by listening, and allowing your new friend to do the heavy lifting can teach you all sorts of things about the climate of your business, while directing you towards others in the room you should be connecting with. When in doubt, ask questions about the food, the weather, or what brought them to the event – these are pretty universally relatable conversations!

Asking questions takes the onus to “be interesting” off of you, and can help assuage your nervousness, giving you a chance to gauge a situation or take the temperature of a room. Before you know it, you’ll come off looking and sounding like a complete human being, as opposed to just a talking head.

Practice

As is true of pretty much everything, the more you network, the better you’ll get at it. Even if initial interactions prove awkward, or your charming, effervescent self seems to have little effect on a dour dud or two, don’t give up!

With time, you’ll undoubtedly get more comfortable approaching strangers, and your talking points can’t help but become more natural and conversational. Perhaps most importantly, though, you’ll begin to take both the highs and the lows in stride. Practice may not make you the perfect networker, but it will definitely make you a better one.

When all is said and done, networking is a necessity for any freelancer. Putting yourself out there is a vital part of your job, and the only way opportunity’s gonna knock is if it has your address!