I recently got a phone call from a friend who said she was debating joining a professional organization. She was partially on the fence, she said, because she didn't want to attend an event and not know anyone.
Though I am by no means a master networker, I do feel like I've gotten much better at it over the past few years - and so I offer my friend (and any other reluctant networkers!) the following tips:
1. People in professional organizations all have something in common already. Use this to your advantage! I love attending marketing events, since the bulk of attendees are usually marketers, too. No matter who I meet, we are bound to have something in common. You can start with an easy icebreaker, like "What brought you to the event tonight?" and you're off and rolling. (A side note: if you walk into a room and everyone is already talking with someone else, approach a group of three or more and introduce yourself. People talking in pairs can be having a private conversation, whereas there's almost always room for one more person in a group discussion.)
2. Set a goal. Sounds a little silly, but setting a networking goal for an event is key. You can set your goal as wanting to meet three new people, to swap business cards with one particular person who you know is also attending the event, or to introduce yourself to the keynote speaker. If that sounds terrifying, decide that you will talk with the person sitting/standing next to you (baby steps!). Once you feel more comfortable, you can set your goals progressively higher. And once you've met your goal for the evening, you can let yourself off the hook and simply enjoy the event.
3. Remember your business cards! I went to an event last night, and when I pulled my card case out, realized I only had four business cards with me. It was both embarrassing and a drag, since I met some fascinating people. Fortunately, people were very gracious and gave me their cards anyway. Which leads me to my fourth and final point...
4. Follow up after the event. So you went to an event. You met your goals, and you (gasp!) even found yourself able to relax and enjoy. As you review the stack of business cards you collected, recall what you discussed with each person, and shoot him or her a quick email. If they are on Twitter, find and follow them; if you had an extensive discussion, you might want to invite them to connect on LinkedIn. The point is to keep in touch...and that's really what networking is all about.