More than just the cheese and crackers.
I know how it is. You get a party invitation and you think, "I can go to this party and eat stale crackers and dry meatballs, and talk to people I don't know. OR, I can hang out at home with my dog and watch reruns on TV." If you are above a certain age, it is probably a no brainer for you. Unless the cheese and crackers are really good.
I love cheese and crackers as much as the next person, and when I am invited to a party, I often find myself standing by the food and whiling away the time without talking to many people. I can hold my own at parties, but sometimes I would rather eat my cheese and crackers at home.
However, I also realize that heading to a wedding, cocktail party, or other gathering can be more than just a social activity with a few drinks and snacks. When I am in the middle of job search, I never turn an invitation down. Because you never know who may show up, who you may meet, and what connections you could make. It could be life changing!
Something fantastic happens at parties: our culture is primed to begin a conversation with the question, 'So, what do you do for work?' It is the perfect opener for the elevator pitch that you have prepared. You can start with, 'Funny you should ask...' and end with, 'Actually, I am actively looking for the next step in my career.' That's really all you need to say. The person may have questions, or not, and it really doesn't matter. Don't hand the person your business card on the spot, because that looks too pushy. Make sure that the conversation goes both ways. You don't want to launch into your pitch, and then walk away without conversing a bit more. If you do that, you will seem self absorbed or disinterested with this new acquaintance.
Basically the goal at the party is to get the word out to as many people as possible, in an indirect way. Communicate what you do and that you are open to a new opportunity. Someone you talk to could be your next boss! Or, she could go to work the next day and hear of an opportunity that would be a good fit for you. Or maybe her friend at another company has been complaining about having hard time hiring someone. Or...the possibilities are really endless.
Make sure you exchange information either at the end of the conversation (after other pleasantries unrelated to your job), or before you leave the party. At a minimum, remember the person's name so that you can get contact information from the party host later on, if necessary.
Cast a wide net and meet as many people as you can. If you meet ten people and one of them works at your dream company, it was worth your time and energy right? THAT is what networking is all about. Way better than eating crackers on your couch at home, pressing the 'submit' button for those job applications that disappear into a black hole.