As we bid good-bye to summer, it's time to go from kicking back a bit to kicking into higher gear again. I don't know about you, but I'm ready. And one thing I'm looking forward to is reconnecting with some of my networking groups and catching up with folks I haven't seen as much in recent months.

To be honest, I haven't always loved networking and professional groups, though I often have a good time once I'm in the room. Just call me an extroverted introvert.

I've been thinking about what makes networking groups easier to navigate and more worthwhile and fulfilling. Here are my five tips for how to work your networking group and make it work for you.

1. Have a wingman.

Knowing you have someone to talk with and are eager to see makes getting to networking group events easier when you'd rather hunker down and get work done or call it a day. Maybe you join a group with a friend or maybe you make a really good friend there.

Just don't use your wingman as a crutch. Remember, you have to branch out and meet new people; that's the whole point. Two of my networking groups meet monthly for lunch and I always seek out my friends, but also try to sit with a different group each time, too.

2. Craft an elevator speech.

Networking groups offer lots of chances to deliver your elevator pitch -- what you do, what services or products you provide, who your target market is and why you do what you do. I'm a communications professional and lifelong writer and even I can get tripped up by these most basic questions. Spend time writing and practicing a 30- to 60-second elevator pitch, because you're going to need it -- and that's a good and empowering thing. 

3. Join a committee.

Networking groups can be big and overwhelming. One way to make them smaller and get to know people better is to join a committee or volunteer for a special project. I like to be part of a group for a bit and size up what I might like to do or where I'd fit, so don't worry about doing this on Day 1.

Side note: Committees mean putting your expertise and leadership to work, so don't forget to note this experience on your LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn isn't just for showcasing your day job.

4. Think 1:1.

You might not love the big networking gatherings, and it sometimes can be hard to have prolonged conversations. But these events offer the opportunity to meet a lot of people -- and you can always ask some of these people about meeting later one on one. I love meeting 1:1 at a coffeehouse, and it often leads to friendship, support and business. 

5. Sponsor something.

Networking groups often have sponsorship opportunities. You can have your business name mentioned at an event or printed on a t-shirt. You can sponsor a table or a round of golf. And often the money goes back to support a good cause or the group itself. One of my business groups offers sponsorships of the monthly after hours events at local breweries, and I'm looking forward to sponsoring one in the fall. 

Bonus tip: I think sometimes people go into networking groups needing or hoping to see immediate return on investment (ROI). And if they don't see it, they drop out. I say manage your expectations. It's take time to build relationships. This is what I tell my public relations clients, so I really have to practice what I counsel.

It might help to give yourself a modest goal for each group or each event. Maybe you go in wanting to land a certain number of 1:1 meetings or handing out a certain number of business cards or meeting X number of new people.

Keep it easy. Have one good conversation. Tell one person what you do. And it's worth it.

Published on: Aug 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.