For some people, networking comes almost as naturally as breathing. But for many of us mortals, it takes years of observation, practice and failure to master the art of networking--and even then it can still be fraught with discomfort and awkwardness.

Social Networking Is Not Just a Virtual Game
Nowadays, a great deal of social networking happens online through professional platforms like LinkedIn, and informally via casual comments and messages on apps like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat. It takes virtually (pun intended) no effort to send a brief comment and effectively introduce yourself to a stranger. And it costs nothing (save for your internet or mobile data bill).

But electronic networking has its limits, and this is where in-person networking takes the cake: When you walk up to someone at an event and initiate a handshake, it’s impossible for them to ignore you, whereas your electronic comment can easily be deleted, ignored or forgotten. Moreover, by meeting a person face-to-face, you can pick up a lot more non-verbal cues, learn intimate details of their life, and make a more powerful impression than is possible through text or email. You stand to be a lot more memorable in person. Electronic/social media networking can be used to maintain the relationship long after the meeting has taken place, but the physical meeting is what often initiates the connection and starts the rapport in a deeply meaningful way.

So Many Networking Events – How Do I Choose?
If you live in or around a metropolitan area, chances are there are dozens if not hundreds of meetups on any given day, surrounding a wide variety of topics, activities and shared interests. Some networking events are very specific—for example, a meeting of local Latino real estate agents. Others might be more generic, such as a happy hour for young professionals. Before you start filling up your calendar with one event after another, determine your networking goals. Are you looking to find a new job? Interested in expanding your industry knowledge? Or just looking to meet new people and have some fun? Clearly defined objectives will help you identify what type of events you should be attending.

If you’re looking to beef up your network in the world of, say, financial planning, it’s probably be a good idea to target events geared toward that discipline. You’ll meet rookie and veteran financial planners alike, learn about industry trends, and maybe even hear about a juicy job opening or two. But while targeted events are very useful for these aforementioned reasons, they can also be very competitive, since all the attendees are probably there for the same reason as you -- so you’ll end up blending in or even getting bored, instead of standing out and making a strong impression on the people you meet.

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Don’t Forget to Have Fun
When thinking about your “portfolio” of networking event it’s wise to consider other types of events that are not professional but instead based on your personal passions and interests. For example, if you’re really into knitting or kite-flying, join a club geared toward that activity. You’ll meet a ton of people, grow your network organically, and have loads of fun doing it. Plus, you’ll be more relaxed, more likely to smile and be yourself, and those are all ingredients for successful networking.

Whereas a formal job fair expo can be a very crowded, competitive and awkward environment, a salsa-dancing or cooking class can loosen you up and help you meet people comfortably. Often those strangers you met while having fun are the best sources networking connections and even job interviews, because even if that stranger isn’t in the financial planning industry (or whatever industry piques your interest), their spouse, brother or best friend very well might be—and the laughs you shared while tearing up the dance floor or searing that tuna steak at Sur La Table is a very potent networking bond. When people are happy and are enjoying your company, they are much more likely to share their network, knowledge and professional resources with you, including news of job openings or other business opportunities.

So, if you’re the type of person who dreads formal networking events, that’s fine. Just make sure you’re still getting out there for the casual kinds of social interaction, be it playing vintage arcade games with strangers or joining a beer-brewing club.

The Event Is Just the First Step
Meeting and schmoozing with someone at an event is only the first step in your networking journey. Like any other relationship, professional connections must be nurtured and cultivated. If you connect with someone, don’t let the event at which you met them be the last time you interact. Continue and build the relationship with additional communication, whether it is through phone, social media or another medium.

If the event you attended recurs on a weekly or monthly basis, be sure to continue to attend. Some folks are shy toward complete strangers but are more likely to approach a familiar face – better yet, don’t wait until they muster the courage to come to you. Walk up and say hello. The more times you interact with people, the further the relationship will develop and the more comfortable you’ll both become. There is no magic here -- practice is the key to developing your schmoozing skills and building out your network.

David Wiacek is a NY-based, globally-minded career coach and copywriter. He helps squash his clients’ fears and helps them find more fulfilling, better-paying careers. He also crafts catchy copy for businesses—both in print and online. Check out his work at davidthefixer.com.