It’s the most wonderful time of the year—for growing your professional network, that is.
That’s because it’s the holiday party season, which gives you ample opportunity to meet and greet people who could potentially connect you to your next job, client, or lucrative side gig.
"It’s a festive time, and people at holiday gatherings are likely to be in a positive, open frame of mind," says Dorie Clark, a marketing strategy consultant and author of Stand Out Networking.
"It’s a terrific opportunity to get to know people outside the confines of the office or more formal networking events throughout the year," she says.
But simply eating, drinking, and being merry between now and New Year’s isn’t tantamount to good networking—you’ve got to approach the season strategically to turn all those conversations over eggnog into meaningful connections.
So we’ve rounded up expert-driven advice that will help you take full advantage of the party season, from being a better guest to figuring out an efficient way to wish "Season’s Greetings!" to everyone in your contacts list.
This may seem like a given, but many people dread holiday shindigs because they don’t consider themselves the schmoozing type. But shifting your mind-set can help you get more out of these events, says Susan RoAne, a business networking expert and author of How to Work a Room.
RoAne recalls one set of clients, a husband-and-wife team who ran a business together, who only started reaping relationships from networking parties once they started accentuating the positive.
"They went from saying, ‘Ugh, I wonder who we’re going to meet,’ to, ‘I wonder who we’re going to get to meet.’ They had the attitude shift that this is an adventure," RoAne says.
Because talking to strangers doesn’t come naturally to everyone, do a dress rehearsal before attending an event, suggests RoAne.
This can include not only coming up with conversation starters, but also practicing your nonverbal cues like making eye contact and smiling, which will immediately help make others feel more comfortable. "You have to try it out—practice, practice, practice."
One way to prepare? Talk to people whenever you find yourself in line, whether at the grocery store or going through airport security. "It doesn’t always mean that you’re going to do business with them—in that moment you may just have a personal exchange that makes your day go by better," RoAne adds.
You’re going to meet tons of new people before the holiday season is over—and so are all your important business contacts. Stand out from the crowd by coming up with a creative, even humorous, way to answer pat questions like, "What do you do for a living?"
RoAne, for instance, once met someone in a coffee shop while writing one of her books. When she asked him what he did, "He said, ‘I help rich people sleep at night.’ I couldn’t help it; I said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re a pharmacist!’" she says. "And he said, ‘No, I’m a financial planner!’ He caught my attention and gave me an opportunity to ask a [follow-up] question."
If possible, bring a trusted friend or colleague with you to be your conversation copilot, suggests Clark. You can make a pact to help talk each other up at the event, which takes the pressure off you to dazzle.
"When I have a friend who is very modest or self-deprecating, I’ll make a point to interject on her behalf and cite some of her more impressive accomplishments," Clark says. "It might sound egotistical for someone to introduce herself as having a million Twitter followers, but people are impressed if I mention it on her behalf."
In the same way that you’d play up your wingman, do the same for your invitees if you’re the one playing host.
Introducing your guests by stating a few interesting facts—professional or otherwise—helps break the ice and makes them memorable to the other guests.
Judy Robinett, a networking expert and author of How to Be a Power Connector, has even been to events where the host will tease interesting tidbits about the guests on the invitation.
"For example, most people would never guess that I used to fly helicopters or that I play guitar," she says. "That’s something someone might put on the invitation. And then people are curious when they get to the party—who is this person? And it’s always the most unlikely person."
Ever look at a business card and think, "How the heck do I know him?"
Unless you have a mind like a steel trap, you’re not going to remember everyone you meet—so it pays to come up with a way to help jog your memory.
Consider doing what Clark does: "Don’t forget to write identifying notes on the back of people’s business cards, or enter their information into your database as soon as possible," she suggests. "Because if you leave it until the new year, you’re likely to forget who was who."
You never know—"Christmas tie guy" could be your next client, while "Pixie-cut power-suit woman" could be your next new hire.
[Related: How Business Cards Can Help You Get A Job]
When you overhear someone who needs business advice or knowledge that you possess, don’t be afraid to enter the conversation. Not only are you providing a teaser of your skills—you could be getting some good karma to boot.
Robinett offers this example: While in line at a Starbucks one day, she overheard two young men talking about their startup and how to find an investor. As it turned out, Robinett had experience in venture capitalism. "I turned around and said, ‘Excuse me, I’m an investor. I’d be happy to give you a little bit of information.’ I ended up talking to them for 40 minutes," Robinett recalls.
One of the men also happened to be an executive at an online retailer, and as a thank-you, offered to feature her book on the site.
Now that you’ve been so kind as to give away professional advice, you can launch into your elevator pitch, right?
Not so fast—that could become a turnoff, and quickly. "The people who come running at you with a business card even though it’s a Christmas party—those are the narcissistic people," Robinett says.
In fact, the mingling you’re doing now is just the groundwork for networking, which is what happens after you make that first introduction.
"You don’t know these people [yet]. You have to earn the right, by way of conversation, to dig deeply," RoAne adds. "At a holiday party, it’s about finding things in common or having a lighthearted exchange . . . not the latest product your company is selling."
One way to tell how much leeway you have to talk business is to gauge the vibe of the gathering. "If it’s an informal event where people are dressed down and have their families with them, don’t try to push a hard-core business agenda," Clark suggests. "Instead, treat it as an opportunity to deepen your connections, and you can leave the transactions for later."
Speaking of follow-up, don’t delay in getting in touch with your new contacts via LinkedIn, Twitter, or a Facebook business page. That way, you’re able to establish the connection while you still have momentum—and get one step closer to that face-to-face meeting.
"Within 24 hours I connect via LinkedIn and Twitter, and I’ll write a short little great-to-meet-you email, saying, ‘It was fun talking to you; let’s plan to get together in January,’" Robinett says. "Following up very, very quickly puts you head and shoulders above everyone else."
And just make sure that any LinkedIn invites are personalized. "You might even say something like, ‘It was so interesting to talk to you about the rising price of eggs in California,’" RoAne adds. "What you’re doing is saying that you enjoyed talking to them—and [proving] you were listening."
So you’ve attended your last party of the season and sent out your last batch of LinkedIn invites . . . now what?
Turns out the most old-school thing you can do during the holidays—sending snail mail season’s greetings—can also provide a chance to reassess who the real VIPs are among your business contacts.
In other words, don’t feel pressured to send a card or gift to everyone on your business list. "You just need to focus on the 25 to 50 people that will get you everywhere you need to go," Robinett says. "Those 25 to 50 people each know 150 people, so what you’re really doing is crowdsourcing."
For instance, while trying to drum up publicity in advance of writing her first book, Robinett secured an interview with a blogger. She sent the blogger some homemade fudge during the holidays as a thank-you, and the woman ended up calling Robinett on the phone to thank her—and offered to hook her up with contacts at major magazines.
If you’re afraid a Christmas or Hanukkah card will get lost in overflowing mailboxes, another option is to send New Year’s wishes instead. That way, you’ll have less competition for a colleague’s attention, and avoid the discomfort of not knowing which holiday they celebrate.
"[Consider waiting] until the first or second week of the year, when everyone’s in the doldrums and no more cards are coming through, to send a Happy New Year card," suggests RoAne. "It’s universally applicable [to say], ‘Wishing you the best for 2016—may it be prosperous and happy and joyful.’"
[Related: 8 Steal-Worthy Secrets Of Power Networkers]
This article originally appeared on LearnVest and is reprinted with permission.