When holiday party invitations land in your inbox, do you see them as a waste of time? Or do you recognize them for what they are: a great opportunity to expand your network?

There's no better time of year for networking--if you know how to make the most of holiday parties, according to Kathleen Brady, career coach and founder of Brady and Associates Career Planners. Here are her tips:

1. Don't stay home.

If you haven't had a stellar year it may be oh-so-tempting to skip the holiday party scene, especially if you feel intimidated at the thought of meeting more successful people there. Go anyway, Brady advises, and bring the right attitude with you. "You gotta show up like you belong."

2. Plan what you'll say.

Before you leave for the party, plan exactly what you'll say to describe your business or job. It should be something short that projects a positive outlook.

"If you say, 'I'm working from home and trying to get this new company going,'" people will perceive you as unsuccessful," Brady says. Instead try something like, "I'm an entrepreneur, I'm working on this great new product and we expect to launch in the spring."

3. But first, focus on others.

Now that you know what you're going to say, don't say it. At least not until you've asked the people you're talking with about their own careers and passions. "Start by showing interest in other people," Brady advises.

4. Talk to the loners.

At every party, you'll see at least one person standing alone. Walk up to one of these folks, and start a conversation, preferably with an upbeat comment of some sort. Chit-chat for a little while, and then introduce yourself.

5. Find a graceful exit.

Once you've talked to someone for a while, it's polite to move on so you don't monopolize all of that person's time. And you don't want to limit your own networking to one person, either. But don't commit the faux pas of looking over someone's shoulder to see who else is there. Instead, be straightforward and say that you want to go say hello to some other colleague or talk to others at the party.

Brady recommends against the commonly-used tactic of excusing yourself to get a drink. "Good manners dictate that you offer to also get a drink for the other person," she notes.

6. Stand at the edge of a group.

What if someone you really want to meet is already in a conversation or surrounded by a group? Unless it looks like a serious or private discussion, go over and stand quietly at the edge of the group. Wait for an opportunity to gracefully join in the conversation. And, Brady suggests, pay it forward: If you're in a group conversation and you see someone standing at the edge of it, make it a point to include that person.

7. Set appropriate goals.

Don't seek to leave the party with investors already committed to your project, Brady advises. And don't try and collect the largest possible stack of business cards either. Your goal should be to connect with a small number of valuable contacts whom you may work with later on. "You're trying to create on-ramps to build new relationships," she says.

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