There are tons of networking events to attend – too many, actually. Too many ways to meet people you’ll never see again, too many opportunities to collect a stack of business cards you’ll never look at again. But it’s well worth doing as much networking as you can, because you never know where a chance meeting will lead. Last year, for example, I was hired to give a presentation at a secluded resort near Honolulu, Hawaii – all because of a conversation I struck up with a woman sitting next to me at a luncheon.

Here are 13 simple tips to make the process easier and more productive:

1. Search out relaxed, low-key environments. Business-card exchanges and other networking events are high-pressure situations where people go to meet others … but usually do so with all their defenses intact. For more relaxed networking, try educational environments, such as workshops and seminars, where the focus is on learning.

2. Start conversations. Go out of your way to get into conversations with anyone and everyone – in person, on the phone, and via e-mail. Cross the street, cross the room, cross the aisle to talk to someone. Find out what they’re working on and tell them what you’re working on. You’ll be surprised at what can come out of a simple conversation: ideas, alliances, connections, referrals, new business, new opportunities.

3. Make contact, not contacts. The goal of networking is not to meet as many people as you can in as short a time as possible. The goal is to find a business community that satisfies your needs – one that connects you with people who could be your prospects and with whom you are comfortable. So when you attend an event, don’t think you have to get to everyone in the room. Meet as many people as you can … but if a conversation is going well, stay with it.

4. Be a good listener. Don’t be worried about what you’re going to say. You don’t need to perform your entire sales pitch, just have a little something prepared that you can use to engage someone in conversation. Do more listening than talking, and ask a lot of questions. Then simply respond to what you hear. Answer questions, devise solutions, be creative.

5. Arrive early. If you wait until most of the attendees are already there, they will probably be engaged in conversation and it won’t be as easy to break in.

6. Never sit with someone you know. It sometimes helps to attend an event with a friend or colleague – but once you’ve got your nametags on, go your separate ways. If you don’t, you will never meet anyone new.

7. Look for wallflowers. Instead of trying to break into conversations that are already going, find someone who is sitting or standing by himself (or herself) and simply introduce yourself. Do it even if he looks like he doesn’t want to be approached. The apparent standoffishness may merely be a cover for discomfort.

8. Use the food to begin conversations. If there is a buffet, stand by it and make recommendations to anyone who approaches about what’s good (or bad).

9. Keep going back to the buffet. Never put more than three bites on your plate. Carry your plate to a crowded table, introduce yourself, talk (and listen) for 10 minutes, exchange cards, then excuse yourself to get more food. Repeat until the room is empty.

10. Be random about where you sit. You can’t tell what will come out of a conversation with a person from the way he looks. Don’t judge.

11. Make notes about the people you meet. Every time someone gives you a card, make it a point to write a note about your conversation on the back – while you’re still talking. This will not only flatter the person, it will give you a much better chance of remembering what you talked about so you can follow up in a more personal way.

12. Wear a jacket with pockets. Keep your business cards and a pen in your left pocket and put any cards you get into your right pocket. That way, you won’t be fumbling to find your cards or accidentally hand a new contact someone else’s.

13. Wear an unusual accessory. If you wear a colorful scarf or tie, when you follow up with people you met at the event you can remind them who you are by referring to that accessory. For example, “I was the one with the orange scarf.”

14. Don’t forget to follow up. Networking is not a contest and it’s not about schmoozing. The point is to build long-lasting business relationships. And I can tell you from personal experience that all 14 of these tips really work. So give them a try.

[Ed. Note: Ilise Benun, author of “Self Promotion Online” and “Designing Websites For Every Audience,” is the founder of Marketing Mentor, a 6-month one-on-one coaching program through which the self-employed learn how to promote their talents and services. Sign up for her free e-mail tips at www.marketing-mentor.com.]