Networking – or purposefully meeting new people to build relationships – is an important part of job searching, advancing up the corporate ladder, or running your own business. Networking can benefit your career in many ways. It can also feel awkward or uncomfortable, particularly if you’re more of an introvert. The idea of walking into a room full of strangers and striking up a conversation with people you don’t know may be intimidating.

One way to fight the potential awkwardness of networking is to think of it as an opportunity to help other people. Instead of thinking that you need to “sell” yourself, see each encounter as a way to find out more about the other person so you can give them something useful. This might be an introduction to one of your contacts, a lead on a career opportunity, or a recommendation of a professional resource that might benefit them.

The goal of any networking you do should be to build a relationship. Instead of seeing it as a chance to “get” something from the other person or to “sell” your skills or product, it’s an opportunity to take a genuine interest in someone else, learn more about them, and find a way to give them something useful – no strings attached. When the relationship is built on this kind of sincere interest and goodwill, you’ll find that people return the favor and help you with your own professional goals.

The following strategies and tips can help you enjoy the process of networking and experience its benefits.

1. Set a goal. If you arrive at an event with a specific goal in mind – “I’m going to talk to 10 new people” or “I’m going to chat with the CEO of that company I’d love to work for” – then you have something concrete to work toward. Make sure you keep your promise to yourself, no matter what. To make it more interesting, you could reward yourself with a treat (an ice cream sundae, that new gadget you’ve been eyeing) when you meet your goal. Or, you could make a bet with a friend and whoever meets the fewer number of new people has to buy the other dinner. Approach it from a place of fun and it won’t feel like work.

2. Prepare. Think through some potential questions you could ask of people you meet at the event. Open-ended questions are better than questions that require simple “Yes” or “No” answers. “What brought you to tonight’s event?” “Tell me more about your business,” “How did you get into that line of work?” are great conversation starters. You’ll learn details about the person’s work and interests, and you can follow where the conversation naturally leads. You’ll also find that the other person will likely reciprocate and ask you similar questions, which gives you a way to talk about your own professional interests in a way that doesn’t feel forced, awkward, or like a sales pitch.

3. Have your brief personal statement ready. Sometimes referred to as an “elevator pitch,” your brief personal statement is a 10 – 30 second summary of your current professional status – who you are, what you do, and why you do it. An example is “I’m a consultant who partners with businesses and individuals to enhance their communication and leadership skills so they can enjoy stronger connections with customers and colleagues.” Keep it short, simple, and interesting, and be ready to share it when asked, “So, what do you do?”

4. Smile. It’s a simple tip but an important one. The act of smiling will help calm your nerves and will make you look friendly and approachable.

5. Arrive early. By being one of the first people in the room, you won’t be walking into an overwhelming sea of strangers who’re already deep in conversation. It can be easier to find that first person to talk to when there are only a handful of networkers in the room.

6. Jump in with your prepared introductory questions. Instead of waiting at the edges of the room for someone to talk to you, simply walk up to a person or group and ask, “May I join you?” and then open with one of the questions you thought about in advance. “What brings you to the event?” is a natural way to begin.

7. Listen. Practice active listening with everyone you talk to at the event. Pay attention to the details they’re giving you as you ask your questions and allow yourself to follow their lead instead of mentally planning what you’re going to say next. The only way you can provide something of value to the other person is to learn who they are and what they do.

8. Follow up. One or two days after meeting someone for the first time, send them a brief note or email. You’re continuing to build the relationship, so add a new detail about something you discussed with them, send them a link to an interesting news article related to what you talked about, or offer to connect them to one of your colleagues you think might be helpful.

By using these strategies, you can approach your next networking event with confidence, reap the professional benefits of building new relationships – and maybe even have fun in the process.

How do you approach networking? Post your comments here!