Going to networking events can be valuable for surfacing opportunities if you can manage the art of conversation well.

If you are too scripted, people will avoid you, because they don't want to be sold. If you are too casual, people will avoid you, because you bring little substance or value. And let's face it, no one wants to be stuck talking to a rambler or, worse, a droning slow talker.

You need to mingle and somehow get to a connection, but saying "What do you do?" 50 times gets old and boring to you and the people around you. I have changed my own small-talk habits over the years. In my early business days, I used to be the first to engage in conversation when networking. I was anxious to expand my network and wanted to meet as many people as possible.

These days, I am more selective about how I spend my networking time. I find myself listening more and talking less. I will move casually from group to group, ears perked for an interesting conversation. I only engage when I feel I have something of real value to contribute to the discussion. If I say something stupid, no small talk in the world will repair the damage, so I move on. But if what I have to say is relevant and interesting, people engage me and a worthy conversation begins.

Valuable insights are scarce at most networking events, and I have no desire to contribute to the noise. But observing and listening can surface wonderful opportunities worthy of conversation. You might even learn something valuable.

Here are additional insights from my Inc. colleagues.

1. Focus on why.

What an individual "does" is rarely the reason he or she has chosen to take the time to attend an event or networking function. Instead, I focus on learning something about the people I meet and their motivation for being at the event. There are many ways to start that conversation--"What (Who) brought you here?" "Why did you decide to attend?" The response allows me to weed out the individuals who are just trying to make a sale. Everyone at an event is there for a reason--information, a connection, a job, advice--and if I can find out what that motivation is, I can very likely make a connection for that person that is meaningful. --Lean Forward

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2. Be spontaneous.

The best way to start conversations is to be in the moment and tune in to the person you're talking with. Be observant! If someone is wearing an unusual piece of jewelry or clothing, you can ask where it came from. Name tags can also help. For the moment, I live in Woodstock, New York, and people frequently ask me about that. If all else fails, ask a question in relation to the event, such as "Are you enjoying yourself at this party?" Some people recommend having a conversational gambit prepared, but to me, those often sound rehearsed. Spontaneity, if you can handle it, is much better. Minda Zetlin--Start Me Up

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3. Have a story (or two) ready.

I have found that one of the best ways to break the small-talk ice is to be prepared in advance with at least two or three absolutely crazy, off-the-wall customer stories that will either garner a laugh from your new acquaintance or elicit a deep sigh of recognition. Remember: People love to talk about themselves, so after you tell your crazy story, then ask your new acquaintance to tell you one of his or her craziest stories. This will provide you with the common ground that you need to either continue your conversation or make the decision to courteously break it off and move on to your next conversation. --The Management Guy

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4. Have a clear objective.

I describe myself as a reformed introvert who works hard at being an extrovert. Surprisingly, many people feel the same way, and networking meetings can be a drag for our personality type! When I network, I have to make myself comfortable. To do that, I think about what I want to achieve. The answer is always the same: to meet someone really cool who I can help in some way. Now, that's easy, because it's what I do best! What is your strongest people-related skill? Are you funny? Do you like bringing people out of their shell? Be that person at your events, and just have fun! --The Successful Soloist

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5. Big talk is better than small talk.

Instead of small talk, I ask big questions to get people talking about what they really care about. I might start with a question like: "What's your goal for this conference?" Then move to questions such as "What are one personal and one professional goal you have?"; "What is your favorite charity to support?"; "Who would you most like to meet here, of all of the speakers?" The most important question you can ask earnestly is "How can I help you?" I know this is a lot scarier than small talk, but it's also much more effective and fun. I've made lifelong friends in five minutes this way--and you can, too. --Likeable Leadership

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