One of the questions people frequently ask me is how to network authentically and effectively. From young professionals to seasoned executives, many people feel uncomfortable speaking with strangers and promoting themselves.

Those of us who live in Washington, DC know how essential networking is to finding new clients, new job opportunities, and new business connections – whether we are diplomats, attorneys, entrepreneurs, or accountants.

But there are two things we might not realize: 1) it’s just as necessary outside DC, and 2) it doesn’t have to feel awkward or manipulative. There are authentic and comfortable ways to network.

Here are some tips to authentic and effective networking:

Prepare your 1-sentence elevator speech. There are many types of elevator speeches, but the one you will use most frequently is your “1-sentence.” It’s the sentence that highlights who you are and what is important to you. The key to using this elevator speech authentically is to talk about something you’re really interested in, so you let your natural excitement and energy show through. Rather than simply saying, “I’m a lawyer,” try expanding on that by saying “I’m a real estate lawyer who focuses on helping people…” so you paint a more vivid picture of what you do.

Versions of my 1-sentence include, “I teach public speaking and presentation skills, with a special focus on helping people find their voice,” or when I really want to capture someone’s attention, I say, “I’m a recovering opera singer who teaches public speaking and presentation skills.” The most frequent reaction I get is, “Wow, I really wish I met you last month before my client presentation.” Then I know I’ve made a great connection with someone.

Attend content-focused events in addition to “networking” events. For me, the best networking happens outside networking events. If I want to work more with salespeople, I’ll go to professional development events for salespeople instead of going to a “networking event” hoping there will be someone who works in sales. Find out where your target audiences go naturally and meet them there. That way you connect around shared interests, which lead to a stronger relationship.

Ask, “So what brings you here?” While leading a networking workshop for an accounting firm in the DC area, one of the participants came up with the perfect conversation opener, “So, what brings you here?” It lets you start a conversation with curiosity and lets you get to know the other person before you speak. It can also be used at any time – sitting next to someone before a conference, on line for the buffet, or milling around in the reception area. Often times, starting the conversation is the hardest thing. Look for people on their own; it’s much easier to approach them. For larger groups, I approach the individuals and look at their body language. If someone makes eye contact and smiles, then I approach the group. If no one looks at me, I move on.

Be curious and helpful. The best networkers are great conversationalists; they take the time to get to know the people they’re speaking with, instead of simply walking up, handing someone a business card, and talking about themselves. In public speaking, we learn to first and foremost know our audience before we craft a message that speaks to that audience. In networking, we similarly want to know who our audience is so that we know what kind of conversation would interest them. Start with questions, not statements, and always think of ways you can help the other person. Who can you introduce them to in your network?

Know when to let go. Prepare yourself for a little bit of awkwardness; not everyone will like you and not everyone will be interested in what you do. That’s natural. When that happens, you can confidently end the conversation with, “Well, I enjoyed meeting you. I’m going to look for a colleague of mine, I hope you enjoy the conference.” Keep meeting people until you find the ones who are interested in speaking with you (and who you enjoy speaking with). Once you meet someone you really like, speak with them briefly, end the conversation by exchanging business cards, and keep moving around the room. You know you’ll email them afterward to set up a time to talk more.

It’s all about the follow-up. A former boss used to say, “If we hold an event and the press doesn’t show up, the event never happened.” While that might be a little extreme (it was also before the internet age), it’s safe to say that if you meet someone and don’t follow up with them later, it’s as if you never met them. The likelihood is very small that they will remember you in the future and that a meaningful business relationship will come of it. That’s why it’s important to exchange business cards at the end of the conversation and – if there is a relevant connection – reach out within 24 hours, connect on LinkedIn, and invite them for a meeting. Remember that the business effects of networking can take many months or even years to come to fruition; don’t expect to reap the rewards in just a few weeks.

Know your audience, know your culture: Networking techniques vary across cultures , especially when gender is involved. In some cultures, if a woman approaches a man and starts a conversation, or vice versa, it can be misinterpreted as romantic interest. I won’t tell you how to network in your particular culture, but I ask you to be sensitive and know your audience in advance, including what networking techniques are appropriate to use. If you’re unsure, ask the “connectors” in your own network for advice.

Just like public speaking, networking is a skill that you improve through practice and repetition. So set yourself a goal of meeting two new and interesting people every week, and you’ll see the benefits!

What are your networking best practices? Tweet them to @AllisonShapira or post them on our Facebook page at: