When you think of "networking" what comes to mind? Images of people in suits passing out business cards, trying to get something? If so, it's time to rethink the concept. "Networking is gaining visibility for yourself or your organization, and not just when you need a job or a favor," says Debra Fine, a former engineer turned speaker and trainer. "Networking is establishing and maintaining a network of professional and community contacts," she adds. That way, years from now when you do need a favor, you'll have an established relationship.

"One reason engineers don't value networking is because we don't know how to do it," Fine says. And it is hard talking to people you don't know. She suggests joining at least one organization and attending the meetings. Join three groups if you can force yourself to do it. And they don't have to be professional organizations, they may include religious, government, or volunteer groups.

Once you've signed up, keep in mind the following hints for what to do at an event:
1. Fake it. Make yourself look approachable. "If you appear through your body language to be nervous, ill at ease, or uncomfortable, then you are not the kind of person that somebody wants to spend time with," says Fine. Smile, stand up straight, and make eye contact.
2. Make other people feel comfortable, and be the first to start a conversation. The most approachable person in the room is probably the one standing alone. Look near the food buffet or for someone sitting alone at a table. If you're sitting down for a presentation, start the conversation with the people on either side of you.
3. Set a specific task or goal for the event. "A CEO and engineer gave me this tip," says Fine. "Before he walks into an event he determines who will be in attendance that he wants to meet. He'll choose three people from a roster or attendance list. He goes to the event, introduces himself to the three people, and then gives himself permission to leave." It can be too overwhelming to attend an event with a goal to "meet people." A more specific target is easier to meet.
4. There are no magic icebreakers, so ask open-ended questions. Many of us look for the perfect one-liner to get a conversation going. But such phrases don't exist. A good bet is to start with a common denominator. Ask people what they know about the speaker or program, what brings them to the conference, or if they know something about the area. Avoid questions that have one-word answers such as "where are you from" or "what do you do?"
5. If you want to follow up, express your interest. You might suggest a chat on the phone or meeting for coffee. When you get their business card, e-mail them the next day.

The online networking world is another way to establish relationships. "LinkedIn (linkedin.com) is one site that is built particularly well," says Fine. "To my knowledge they've never used it in a way that is unethical or reveals confidential information," she adds. There are some rules for online networking. "Don't come across as opinionated, or someone who's out to get something," Fine suggests. "Watch the posts to see what kind of temperament people have, and get a feel for what's going on."

How necessary is networking?
If you still feel networking is something you don't need to worry about, think about this: According to a study by human-resource advisors Drake Beam Morin, 64% of the people surveyed said they found their new jobs through networking.

How did you find your current job? Take our poll and tell us what you think. Go to forums.machinedesign.com and scroll down to Vicki Reitz's blog. Click on the post called "How did you get your job?" and let us know if you used networking to get your current position.

Debra Fine is the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk." Visit www.DebraFine.com for more information.