You and I have likely read our fair share of articles and blog posts on the do’s and dont’s of networking events.  As savvy professional social networkers we seek the opinions of others like us and hope to find some magic formula in all those listicles and case studies.  And while there might be some good tips, when it comes to networking, it’s a lot like dating; put down the books and just do it.

Networking is a human activity.  We’re conditioned to enjoy these kinds of activities, things like birthday parties and happy hours.  We like them because there is less structure and fewer rules than in other areas of our life such as offices and buttoned-up conferences.  They give us a chance to let down our proverbial hair a bit and just be ourselves.  But professional networking carries the burden of being more about the professional and less about the networking.  There are so many written and unwritten rules that we end up stressing ourselves out and cower in our car in the parking lot, when we should just march in, grab a cocktail, and meet some new people.

Now that’s not to say you should treat a networking function like a frat party or happy hour with close friends, but maybe it’s a good idea to drop the agenda, or at least loosen it up.  When you go on a date, do you have more fun if you stress out over doing and saying everything just right, or if you just be yourself and enjoy the company of another human being for a few hours?  I’m betting it’s the latter.  It’s better to not be concerned with whether the other person is “the one” right off the bat, or revealing some vulnerability that makes you seem less than perfect.  Get to know them, enjoy the meal, and let chemistry lead you forward.

I’m not here for dating advice, but we’ve all been on dates good and bad, so hopefully I’ve got you nodding your head by now.  Take that same approach when attending a networking event.  You know what you want to get out of expanding your network, whether it’s leads, vendor partners, or a new job.  You may or may not accomplish these goals at a specific event, and if you don’t, that’s fine.  If you show up as a human and have real conversations versus trying to buy or sell something, you’re going to make a far better impression on those with whom you interact.

I tried this approach recently, and found that I had a lot more fun and made better, higher quality connections.  I may not have “worked” the entire room and I certainly didn’t pitch anything, but the people I met will be more likely to remember me and it will be a lot warmer introduction if I ever have to ask them for help or a referral.  I earned respect by getting their permission before I market anything to them; a concept Seth Godin introduced over 15 years ago.  The best content marketing engages users long before a brand pitches them a product or service.  Start viewing your networking as a content marketing campaign.  Your personality and interests are the content that will get people to remember and care about you.  The marketing part comes later, and then if and only if it’s a good fit.  You will meet some people that may never become a prospect, but if you both have a genuine, enjoyable conversation, then what’s the loss?

Of course taking a more relaxed approach to networking doesn’t mean throwing out everything you’ve ever learned about being an effective networker.  Just like you would still practice good table manners and avoid discussing politics or religion on a first date, so go the basic rules of professional etiquette while networking.  But feel free to roll up your sleeves a bit and enjoy the opportunity to connect with people you may not otherwise encounter.

Last month I was approached by a young guy at a networking event.  We were both new to the group and he asked me “so what do you do at these type of things?”  That was a good question to which I didn’t have a definitive answer.  We just started talking (not pitching each other) and it turns out we are both going through similar scenarios in developing skills and positioning ourselves for a career change.  We had a great conversation and are staying in touch with strategies and progress related to our searches.  While it may not have been readily apparent how we can help each other, we both made a good connection and above all, we enjoyed the event.  And after a long day of the structure and rules of the office, I think that’s exactly what we both were looking for.

This article was originally published on my LinkedIn blog.