For those of us who are not natural extroverts, networking events can be painful. It stinks to be in a crowded room at one of those tall tables with no one to talk to, a small plate of cheese and grapes in front of you, a glass of cheap chardonnay in one hand and your business cards in the other.

What’s a person to do? Networking events have earned a bad rap because of the awkward social situations we tend to make them out to be.  The event organizers had the best of intentions--to help you build your connections.  Yet, there you are, surrounded by people just like you, people who needed to meet people.  Just not people who needed to meet you.

In my last column, I talked about how highly successful women build game changing relationships that help them launch and run their businesses.  I have a secret to tell you about these women: They were not big fans of networking events either.  Or at least, they thought they weren’t until they figured out how to find great new business relationships at the right events.  

How can you maximize your time at a networking event? Follow these five steps and see where they lead.

1.     Know who you don’t know, but want to. Analyze your relationship map. Is there a specific person or type of person you need to meet?  Maybe an industry expert who knows about selling into the Fortune 100?  Or the head of procurement at a key prospect in your pipeline?

2.     Do your homework.  There is no shortage of networking events, and they come in multiple flavors: by industry, specifically for entrepreneurs, women-only. Which networking event is right for you?  Do a little background research and see if any of the people you want to meet are speaking at local events. 

3.     Know your story and your audience.  Now that you know where you are going and who you want to meet, get your talking points together. Don’t be too practiced, though. Different people will respond to different things.  What business are they in? What role do they have?  What are they hoping to achieve?

4.    Know your ask, and don’t be shy When you hang out with wildly successful people, you will find that they tend to be pretty vocal about they want and they are not afraid to ask for help.  Asking for someone’s advice about a topic they know well is a great way to get a conversation started and bonds formed.  It’s pretty cool to have your ask turn into a successful person’s thoughtful input on what they would do if they were in your shoes.  That person you are talking to becomes engaged in your success.

5.     Do what you say you will do.  You are done. You went to the event, worked the room because you had a plan, and you executed on that plan.  Sure, you were a little nervous before every new encounter, but it got easier as the night progressed.  Now, it’s time to act.  Take up your new connection’s offer to help.  People attend events because they are social opportunities to meet new business connections, share their platform, and learn new things.  The rules of dating do not apply. Don’t wait; follow-up promptly.  Be persistent while also being respectful of your new connection’s time. 

Now, put on your favorite shoes, load up your business cards, and go make some friends.  Most of all, enjoy yourself.  Believe it or not, networking events can actually be fun.