Networking is usually thought of as a social skill of sorts, something that relies exclusively on confidence, charm, charisma, or some combination of those and other intrinsic personality traits. While those things make up a large part of the networking skillset, they're far from the only contributors to success. In fact, your high school teacher was right… If you want to do well, you need to do your research. He was talking about 15th-century European history, of course, but that doesn't matter; the same maxim holds true for all sorts of things, including networking; research is an entirely underrated tool for creating consistent networking success.
On a basic level, there is no reason why any professional in today's day and age should lack a general understanding of their professional surroundings. This fundamental knowledge- information about competitors, colleagues, peers, the industry- should be there already, at least in part. This knowledge includes a lot of things you should be able to pick up naturally on the job. If you're in interior decorating, you should be familiar with the ins and outs of the season's trends. If you're in the business of providing technology solutions and services, you should be aware of the many solutions options at your disposal and the individuals and companies competing to provide those solutions to your prospective clients. You can and should supplement the knowledge you've already picked up, though. You can do that through discussions with peers and mentors, articles published by and for individuals in your field, training, and informational videos on Youtube or other video sharing sites, and any other number of ways; hint: a Google search is always a good place to start. However you get it, this information will put you on an even footing with your peers, inform your discussions and negotiations, and allow you to engage in more meaningful relations with those people with whom you are hoping to connect.
One of the next and most important steps in research to aid in successful networking is determining who is worth your time. Influencers are key individuals within networks who have a large number of meaningful connections; they don't just know a lot of people, they know and affect them. Finding and reaching out to these individuals can be enormously beneficial when it comes to growing your network and making those meaningful connections for yourself. These people have influence within your industry or your circle for a reason: people rely on them for connections or advice or are curious about their thoughts and ideas; these influencers have value. Targeting individuals of that caliber and tapping into their value will greatly improve the efficiency and scope of your networking. When it comes to finding them, social networks are a good place to start- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn- seek out the people with lots of connections and lots of meaningful interaction with those with whom they're connected. If social media isn't exactly your cup of tea, peers and mentors should be helpful in directing you to influential individuals in your industry as well.
Surprisingly, having a sense of what to talk about, how to talk about it, and who to talk about it with isn't enough for successful networking research. You also need to know when and how to get out and meet these people with whom you want to interact. Social networks can be a good place to initiate conversations for the first time, but when it comes to the successful pursuit networking, it's often hard to have truly valuable conversations online. You'll need to figure out where and how to meet these individuals in person. Sometimes a simple ‘want to meet up for coffee?' can get the job done, but that's not always the case. Some individuals don't like meeting up with the people they meet online in intimate or private settings, and some won't meet up with people they meet online at all. Keeping up to date with events in your network and your field provides you with more flexibility regarding where and how to meet like-minded individuals, so sign up for newsletters, trawl online calendars, be on the lookout for Facebook events, and find yourself a local networking group to join!
Get a good sense of what to talk about, find like-minded, influential individuals to talk about it with, and figure out when and how to meet up with those individuals. Do all of that, and you'll be well on your way to networking success. Research is your friend. Happy hunting!