Networking events present excellent opportunities for you to meet prospective clients, referral sources and other business contacts. Your objective at these events should be to meet as many contacts as possible without being obtrusive, says Joshua Zuchter, a life and business coach based in Toronto.

Zuchter offers this advice to help you get the most out of your next networking event:

> Introduce yourself
Approach someone you want to talk to, introduce yourself and then pause, allowing the other person to introduce himself or herself to you. Then, ask questions such as: “What type of work do you do?”; “What brought you to this event?”; or “How did you find out about this event?”

You’re not asking these questions because you need information. Networking is about developing a rapport. Your objective is to find common ground with the other person and let the conversation flow from there.

> Choose the right topics
If you’re stuck for a topic of conversation, try talking about something that’s going on at the event — perhaps there was an interesting speaker — or about developments in your industry that the other person might find interesting. If the person you are talking to is a prospective client, share case studies or testimonials that tell what some of your clients have experienced.

Avoid controversial topics such as politics and religion, as well as personal family matters.

> Keep things balanced
Being a good conversationalist does not mean monopolizing the conversation — or letting others do so. The networking experience should be an exchange, so both parties get a chance to take part equally in the conversation.

> Ask open-ended questions
“Yes” and “no” questions can close the possibility for a real conversation. Ask questions such as “How did you enjoy the speaker?” or “What type of client does your company serve?”

Be careful not to barrage the individual with too many questions.

> Mind the gaps
Don’t regard all pauses in a conversation as an “awkward silence.” Some pauses in the flow of speech are quite acceptable, Zuchter says. Some people like to take a few seconds before answering a question. A short pause, he says, gives the other person a chance to process what you said and respond.

Don’t misinterpret a pause as an indication that the person is not interested in what you are saying, Zuchter says. Trying to fill in all the pauses is a common error that can make you appear nervous.

Still, pay attention to the pauses in a conversation. After three pauses, it might be time to move on. And if the conversation falls flat, in most cases you should let it go.

“Don’t stand there feeling awkward,” Zuchter says. “Take charge of ending it.” Say something like: “It was a pleasure to meet you”; or “Glad that we had a chance to talk,” and move on. Sometimes it’s good to exit the conversation before it goes flat. If the person would like to continue the conversation later, they’ll ask for your business card.