I used to dread attending networking events and crowded conferences. I'm a bit of an introvert and it always felt awkward walking up to a stranger and trying make small talk.

It wasn't until I realized that some of my greatest opportunities have come because of a chance connection made at a conference or networking event that I started appreciating that dreaded networking. I realized I needed to think of networking differently to make it work for me.

With the Spring networking season entering full swing, it's a good time to think about how you approach networking, so you can get the most out of your time spent.

The World is Flat

Some networkers I know move through a networking event to collect as many business cards as possible. They tend to put people they meet into two broad categories: prospects or non-prospects. They quickly discard the non-prospects as a waste of time.

That's a mistake. A non-prospect may be just as important to your future needs as a prospect because they may connect you with someone or something you need.

Remember six degrees of separation? With the introduction and widespread use of social media and other technologies, a study from 2012 shows that these days, it's more like four degrees. The more people you know--really know--the more likely you are to make that important connection you need to take your career, company, or venture to the next level.

Stop Working the Room

The number one rule is to stop thinking about networking as "networking." Networking should not be about meeting as many people as possible in as short amount of time. There is no glory in returning to your office with a handful of business cards if nothing comes from your efforts, and there is no need to continually add to your LinkedIn connections unless you can establish a meaningful relationship with these new connections.

I work hard to figure out what I can do for someone else when I meet them. Who can I connect them to? What can I do for them (outside of selling them my stuff)? What resource or information can I share that will help them out? True connection is a two-way street.

Be Selective

I attend one event a week. If I pick a new event, and it's not right for me, I don't go back. If it ends up being a good use of my time, where I meet quality people who are interesting and interested, then it makes it onto my list of events to attend in the future.

One such event in Atlanta, started by Darrah Brustein, is the Atlanta Under 40 event.  Darrah's event attracts almost 200 people a month. There is an unspoken rule that people don't sell to each other at Atlanta Under 40--it's about getting to know someone new. Her event has been so successful that she recently unveiled an Atlanta Over 40 to give everyone a place to make new connections.

Focus on Only a Few

One of my colleagues makes it a point to only meet one person at any given event and spends his time really getting to know that one person. He relies on that deep connection to potentially connect him with the rest of their network.

I am not as hyper-focused, but try to have a meaningful conversation with only about five people at every event I attend or for each day of a conference. This results in enough contacts to plan one day of meetings and get to know each of them more deeply within a couple of weeks of the initial introduction. I have found that seeking to establish a quality relationship with a few people provides the greatest payoff for my efforts.

It's About the Follow Up

Quinetha Frasier of First Born Group follows a philosophy that I have always found to be true, but didn't put it into words as precisely as she has. She believes that if you don't follow-up with someone within 10 days after meeting them it was never meant to happen.

She goes so far as to say that if you don't MEET in 10 days, then it wasn't meant to be. This is her way of determining those that are really serious about establishing a relationship and those just connecting for the sake of connecting.