Anyone who’s ever tried to further their career or grow their business through networking knows how challenging it can be. Naturally shy people, in particular, can have a lot of trouble approaching people, but chances are each of us could use a helping hand when it comes to boosting our own professional networks.

So here are five time-tested tips to help you get the most out of your connections and build a future that you can be proud of:

1. Remember that online and in-person networking are two very different beasts

These days there are a lot of online networks that cater to professionals, from iconic ones such as LinkedIn to more niche sites such as Xing and Meetup. Online networking offers numerous advantages, including the ability to delay your responses and the option of reaching out to multiple people at once. But it lacks the ‘human touch’ of in-person networking, which is why many people still prefer to meet and discuss things the old-fashioned way.

However, keep in mind that there are different rules on how you engage people. At an in-person networking event, you need to take the time to really connect with every person of interest. If you just brush them off in an effort to reach as many people as possible you stand a good chance of seeming cold and aloof. Likewise, try not to get too excited whenever you talk to someone online. Wait until you actually meet them before you form a strong opinion.

2. Know which places to go to

Not all networking opportunities are created equally. Before you decide to attend a particular event or conference, be sure to research what people have to say about previous editions. Sometimes the asking price might be too high, or the speakers invited might not exactly light the world on fire.

Also, you want to make sure that you’ll be surrounded by professionals from your industry of choice. A good way to do this is by signing up to courses that attract like-minded individuals. For example, there are a ton of online courses available that focus on specific markets such as Australia, thereby allowing you to stay up-to-date with what your fellow nationals are studying.

3. Keep your work and private life separate

Due to their social nature, networking sessions can often resemble the time you spend with your friends and acquaintances. And indeed, some connections do blossom into full-blown friendships. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that everyone you encounter is destined to become a true friend.

For this reason, refrain from showing off personal pictures or sharing compromising stories about yourself. Your private life should stay private, and your focus should be solely on what you can offer as a professional.

4. Don’t ask for a job, ask for information

Your main goal when it comes to networking lies in building a good rapport with every person you encounter. While some of these connections can result in job opportunities, going into any discussion with the expressed hope of being offered a position is bound to make things awkward for everyone.

The idea here is to get your name out there and impress people with your skills and personality, not to hound them for a position at their company. If you do your job right, offers may very well come your way afterward. And even if they don’t, you will at least have established some connections that may prove useful in the future.

5. The rule of reciprocity

This is a big one. Contrary to what some people assume about networking, it really isn’t just about what you can get, it’s also about what you’ve got to offer. Every person that you meet has a story behind them, and you may find that you could play a significant part in some of them. In fact, I’d even go as far as saying that you should help others first. A true professional will recognize this as a sign of strength, and will often return the favor sooner or later.

That concludes our quick overview of the five best things you can do to expand and nurture your professional network. With time and dedication, you too can harness the power of the people around you for mutually-beneficial gains. Even if some things may seem difficult in the beginning, keep in mind that networking is primarily a skill and one that you’ll get better and better at the more you practice it.

Guest writers and carefully selected for Career Enlightenment. Thanks for reading!

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