Dear Sam: I have not done a good job of growing my professional network and I know that it’s important for maximum career effectiveness. Meeting new people is difficult for me, but I know that I must. How do you recommend I tackle this challenge? — Will

Dear Will: Driving career advancement through strategic professional connections and genuine relationships is a critical part of any sound career progression plan. With more than 70% of jobs unadvertised on the “open market,” who you know is key to tapping into opportunities that will otherwise go unknown. But, if networking does not come naturally to you, how can you approach what can often be a daunting task?

First, you are not alone. Many people struggle with feeling awkward and unnatural in these social situations. The key to feeling more of a sense of belonging—and therefore being able to represent your true self—is following these four P’s: Prepare, Plan, Pitch, and Perfect!

1. Prepare
Before heading into your next networking event, take time to identify your goal: What do you want to learn from others? What do you want others to learn about you and from you? Do not venture into a networking situation with the mindset of this being something you have to do; instead, turn this into a positive experience by thinking about it as an opportunity to develop your brand and further your career. Source networking opportunities through professional associations, affinity groups, organized meetups, and by simply asking targeted contacts to have coffee!

2. Plan
Developing a networking plan is key to the success and sustainability of your efforts. Research indicates that people who create a written plan are 95% more likely to achieve their goals. Build your action plan based on the specific needs of your networking efforts. Do you need to connect to people in new industries? Are you seeking career advancement? Are you trying to sell yourself in a new and unfamiliar market? Once you have defined your action plan, block time on your calendar every weekday to not only secure networking opportunities but to participate in them too. Strive to spend 15-20 minutes daily working on the execution of your action plan with a goal of attending one networking function—could be one-to-one or group—once every two weeks.

3. Pitch
As meeting new people is a challenge for you, group networking could prove more difficult; instead, focus on one-on-one conversations. Develop an elevator speech you can confidently deliver when meeting someone for the first time. Once your comfort with group events increases, this same approach also will work as it is not uncommon for attendees to have a couple of minutes to introduce themselves. Remember to pay attention not only to your verbal messaging but also to your nonverbal cues and body language. It’s amazing, when we are nervous, how quickly we forget the importance of a smile, eye contact, and approachable body language. Practice your pitch with a trusted confidant who won’t be shy critiquing both the verbal and nonverbal cues.

4. Perfect
We all know that practice makes perfect and networking is no different. By following your action plan of attending a networking event biweekly, you will be getting some practice and becoming more comfortable. Perform post-event analysis, recognizing what went right and areas for improvement. Learn through osmosis at these events, observing those who seem at home in such an environment and watching their nonverbal cues and listening to their verbal language. Are there lessons you can incorporate into your own networking style?

Networking isn’t just about signing up for an event and showing up; it’s about creating an action plan to facilitate proactive outreach, to engage in genuine discussions in order to build authentic relationships, and to give your network as much, if not more, than you get out of it. All the best as you learn to love networking!