Networking. It's an essential part of your professional life -- but that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy.

As a matter of fact, many people dread networking. They perceive it as an awkward, forced, and unnatural exchange -- which only leads to sweaty palms, uncomfortable silences, and unproductive conversations.

So, how do you leave those shaky knees behind and become a better networker? Implement these five key habits of strong networkers, and you're sure to make a positive impression.

1. Strategize

Yes, networking is really just a conversation. But, if you're aiming to go beyond those generic discussions about the weather or the venue, you're going to need to enter into that conversation with a little bit of strategy.

Before heading into a networking event, take some time to think about your strategy. Is there something specific you're aiming to accomplish? Is there somebody in particular you're hoping to meet?

Having those things in mind -- before you ever enter into a conversation -- will help you ensure that you actually get what you came for.

2. Practice

Of course you can't -- and shouldn't -- rehearse every single word of a networking conversation in front of your bathroom mirror. Discussions have a natural flow, and you don't want to come off like a well-practiced robot who's determined to get all of those canned lines out of your brain and into the air.

However, there are some things you can practice in regards to networking. The most important one? Your introduction.

How you introduce yourself sets the tone for the rest of the conversation, so make sure you do yourself justice. Practice a quick elevator pitch for yourself, remembering to touch on not just what you do, but how well you do it.

Having a polished introduction in your back pocket will help you to send the right message about yourself, and likely make you a little more confident as well.

3. Listen

When you think of becoming a better networker, it's all too easy to think about all of the things that you should do or say.

But, it's important to remember that networking is still a conversation -- not a one-sided broadcast that exists for you to promote yourself.

You should plan to listen at least as much as you speak. When you're actively engaged, you're sure to learn something valuable from whoever you're speaking with. Plus, you'll foster a reputation as a solid communicator -- rather than a conversational steamroller.

4. Offer Value

Unfortunately, we all tend to have a, "What's in it for me?" attitude when it comes to networking. We want to walk away with a new job lead or a handful of business cards.

However, you can't head to networking functions expecting to only get -- you also need to be prepared to give.

Aside from only thinking about what you aim to get out of networking, make sure you also know what you bring to the table. Do you have expertise or advice to offer? Do you have a variety of connections in a certain field?

Remember, networking is a two-way street -- be prepared to treat it as such.

5. Follow Up

Chances are, your goal in networking wasn't to have a bunch of surface conversations over lukewarm appetizers and cheap wine.

Networking isn't about just conversations -- it's about forming relationships. And, as you already know, relationships require a little more work and investment.

So, don't plan to just throw that stack of business cards in your desk drawer and allow them to grow mold. Connect with those people on LinkedIn, or send a friendly email when you find an article he or she might be interested in.

Do what you can to continue fostering that relationship. After all, it's those contacts that will be most helpful to you.

Many people dread networking, and that's usually because they perceive themselves as simply no good at it. But, that doesn't have to be the case.

Implement these five key habits, and you're sure to become a stronger and more self-assured networker.