By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – "I DON'T EVEN LIKE the word 'networking,'" says Keith Ferrazzi, the supernetworker who just co-wrote (with Fortune Small Business contributing editor Tahl Raz) a hot book on the subject, called Never Eat Alone (Currency/Doubleday, $24.95). "I don't think of a network of people as a net, into which you wrangle contacts like a school of struggling cod." Well, that's a relief. Ferrazzi, the CEO of a marketing and sales consulting firm called Ferrazzi Greenlight, has picked up so much buzz as a networking expert that he's now teaching seminars on the subject to about 7,000 MBA students at Stanford, Wharton, and elsewhere, and he knows full well that the whole idea of networking makes many of us cringe.

Still, there's no doubt it's a skill worth mastering: The Bureau of Labor Statistics not long ago analyzed how people got their jobs and learned that fewer than 20% of all working Americans found employment through a friend, relative, old school chum, or other personal connection. At the executive level, however--defined as managers earning $100,000 or more annually--72%, or well over three times the average, landed their positions by knowing somebody. Alas, networking has come to be seen as "a cynical tactic for manipulating your way to success," Ferrazzi says. Instead, he sees it as "a way to add richness to your life. Take those business acquaintances that everyone has and turn them into real friendships."

But how? Dinner parties work, especially if you create a theme reflecting a personal interest. Ferrazzi loves singing, so "I do piano-bar parties, where I have Lionel Richie and the Yale Baker's Dozen come and hang out," he says. "Years ago I was doing essentially the same thing"--presumably sans Richie--"in a one-bedroom apartment. You can throw holiday-themed parties or a gospel brunch or whatever your passion is." To expand your circle of friends, he suggests, invite one guest whom lots of others will want to meet, sort of on the same principle as having a big-name "anchor tenant" in a shopping mall. Then, when you chat with people, forget old chestnuts about what makes acceptable small talk. "The 'experts' will tell you to avoid potentially controversial or emotional topics like politics or religion. I disagree," Ferrazzi says. "Do bring up a topic that is actually important to you, whether it's your kids, a personal interest, or U.S. policy in the Middle East." A willingness to reveal a bit about who you really are--without being tedious--is "the key to intimacy, which is the heart of effective networking."

What if you're just shy? Ferrazzi describes himself as "pathologically extroverted," but "I ask more introverted people, 'Do you play the violin? No? Well, if you practiced, do you think you could play a couple of notes by next week?' This is the same idea. Start small. Invite one or two new people into your circle. You'll enjoy it, and you'll want to do more of it." Above all, do whatever you can to help others succeed. Too often, in Ferrazzi's view, networking devolves into a system of quid pro quo horse-trading. "Don't keep score," he says. "If you give, give, and give some more, it will come back to you. Generosity is the key to success." What a wonderful world it would be ...