If it's been a while since you have reached out to people with whom you used to work and you feel a little awkward about it, you're not alone.  The first call is always the worst, but once you successfully complete that conversation, your awkwardness will soon disappear.  Just follow these five simple steps:

1. Start with your low-risk contacts first.  Choose the people with whom you had good relationships and will almost certainly take your call.  I used to begin my calls with a very informal opening such as "Hi Anne, this is Sharon Salling, a voice from your past.  It's been too long since we've talked. How are you doing?"  In every single instance my opener was greeted warmly and the years seemed to fade.  A warm reception goes a long way to building confidence for the next call.

2. Begin by asking people how they are and what's been going on in their lives. Sometimes networkers are so eager to get through their own scripts that they forget this important step and don't leave the best impression. Networking is an iterative process: the first call is often simply to catch up with one another - job search may not even be mentioned.  If it doesn't feel right, save the career networking for the next time you two talk.

3. Prepare an outline of what you want to say. Reintroduce yourself and remind your contact of your last encounter or some event that you shared that brings back fond memories. Briefly say your situation has changed and you're exploring new career opportunities. Immediately let people off the hook by saying something like "I'm just starting to explore companies and directions, and I've always respected your thoughts on the XYZ industry, so I hope you might be able to give me your perspective on the hot issues facing the industry today. I'm not calling because I think you may have an open position, or even know of one, but I would appreciate your advice and suggestions."

4. Be specific about how you would like people to help you.  Do you simply want to make them aware that you are available, thinking about a career change, hoping to relocate to their area, etc., and are seeking some general information? Do you want an introduction to a brother-in-law who is president of one of your target companies? Do you want their opinion of a company at which they used to work?  People can't help you if they don't know what you need.  Good networkers will often ask you "How can I help?"

5. Cycle back to your original contacts when they give you advice, information, or a referral. If your contacts are gracious enough to expend efforts on your behalf, especially if they refer or introduce you to their social network, it's a best practice and plain old-fashioned good manners, to let them know what transpires.  They will be much more likely to help you a second time if you make the effort to keep them in the loop and thank them for their help.

I prefer phone calls for networking, because they are more vital and engaging than an email, but you may want to initially send an email, including a suggestion for a phone call once you've reconnected via email. Whatever approach you prefer, the important thing is to take that first step to networking.  You'll be glad you did.