Heading off to another conference and dreading the schmoozing scene? It might help to know that networking is a critical element of a successful job search. In fact, there is a lot of truth to the saying, “It’s all in who you know.”

Many jobs, particularly high-level and executive, fill through word of mouth, rather than through traditional channels. A solid grasp of networking basics keeps you in the loop and helps avoid the urge to skip networking opportunities.

Network here, there, and everywhere

Conferences and seminars are great places to meet influential people, but making contacts doesn’t necessarily have to take place in hotel conference rooms. Day-to-day functions and events in your current job, as well as during free time, offer many opportunities to meet important people. An invitation you received to your neighbor’s holiday party could be the perfect chance to meet that CEO or HR manager living around the block.

In this age of technology, your laptop is an invaluable friend when it comes to job searching. With a little Internet surfing, you will find an abundance of message boards and chat rooms that are industry-specific and provide not only the advice of other professionals, but also contacts that could prove useful down the road. Over time, networking helps you build a list of valuable contacts.

Networking is not a bad word

Some people dread the idea of networking because they equate it with “schmoozing” or “sucking up,” but it is simply a process of getting to know people. If you are friendly and good at making small talk in social and work-related settings, then your list of “Who’s Who” will grow quickly! Don’t stress yourself by the idea of having to be “on” and making a good impression.

Basic social skills will get you through your first few rounds of networking, and while you may not impress everyone you meet, you can avoid leaving bad impressions altogether by doing your best to make sure people remember your name. Try sticking with these basics:

* Relax. People can tell if you are nervous or anxious, but you don’t need to be – most of them are doing the same thing as you. Don’t get hung up on titles. For the most part, everyone is approachable, and if they aren’t, move on.

* Be yourself. You know how to talk to people. Don’t over think it. Talk about whatever makes sense. Wander the room, hit the buffet, do what seems natural. Inevitably, a situation will arise where you can break the ice and start a conversation. There is always something to talk about, even the weather!

* Make eye contact and smile. It makes you appear sincere and interested. If you come across as distracted, or let your attention wander, it will show and it is downhill from there.

* Be polite. Put your best manners on display. Be a good listener and don’t interrupt. Avoid making rude or biased comments, and end conversations gracefully. If you’ve done the job right, you might even score a business card before you go.

* Follow up. If you connected with someone and discussed the possibility of working together, follow up with him or her a few days later. Schedule lunch or arrange a formal meeting to discuss future endeavors.

If you leave a function empty-handed, don’t be discouraged. You win some, you lose some. There will be other opportunities to meet people and hone your networking skills.