I love to meet and talk with new people, and I am energized by one-on-one interactions with really interesting people. The problem is that these interactions often require starting in large social engagements, which for painful introverts like me can be a challenge.

For years, I have learned the valuable skill of masking my discomfort in crowds with the purpose of meeting others and building my network with one simple strategy: Planning.

Like any other business endeavor, having a plan is just as critical for networking as it is for starting a business or launching a new product line. So if groups and mingling are outside your comfort zone, consider these useful tips to start networking like a pro.

Plan like an invasion

For introverts, our energy and enthusiasm for networking events is minimal, which is why you need to treat the event like a battle -- with you being the over-matched and under-resourced army. And just like going into battle, you need a battle plan.

  1. Remind yourself why you are going to the event -- to grow professionally and make valuable connections

  2. Do research on who will or might be at the event -- at least the type of people and the value they offer

  3. Give yourself a set time table -- it creates urgency in your mission

  4. Attack -- get in and get out with minimal mental energy expended

OK, I say this in jest, but for introverts, being in crowds can sometimes feel like a battle, so I find having a mission and an outcome in mind helps to make the situation successful (or at least more tolerable).

Hold drinks in your left hand

P.S.A. #1: Remember to always hold any drink in your left hand, so that your right hand is ready for shaking. Nothing turns a situation uncomfortable faster than a cold, wet handshake.

Avoid the food

P.S.A. #2: Though you may be hungry and find comfort in eating, resist the urge to eat the tasty hors d'oeuvres while you network. Having food in your teeth and crab cake on your breath is not the impression you want to make.

Make the introduction

I have missed many wonderful opportunities looking for the "perfect" opportunity to make an introduction. What I have learned since is that just being at the event is the "perfect" opportunity. Remember that these events are social, so just walk up, be social, and introduce yourself.

Have a opener

This is a networking event, not a speed-dating social, so there is no need to get creative and fancy with your introduction. Deliver a clear, confident opening that demonstrates why you are an important person to meet.  

For example: "Hello. I am sorry to bother you, but I really just wanted a second to introduce myself. My name is Peter Gasca, and I run a small consulting boutique that focuses on business startups."

And, by all means, if you know the about the person with whom you are making your introduction, or you know about their business, definitely add a personal touch: "I really love your product. How did you come up with that idea?"

Wear a name tag

P.S.A #3: For people like me, who may have difficulty understanding how you pronounce your name or remembering it later, having a visual queue to associate with the introduction is appreciated. So unless everyone knows your name, make yourself a professional name tag -- and wear it on the right side of your chest where it is easy to see.

Have a firm handshake

Offer your hand, and be sure to take his or her hand completely, web-to-web. With a firm, but not crushing grip, give two pumps, then let go.

Square up and make eye contact

Turn your body so that you are directly facing the person, and look them in the eyes. This serves two purposes. First, it signals your interest and sincerity and can create trust. Second, it allows you to measure their interest and can help you gauge your next move.

Have great conversation starters

Unless you have ruined the moment with a cold, clammy handshake or spitting crab into their face, it is up to you to get the conversation started. This is difficult for introverts, but the secret to success is to get the other person to talk about themselves.

  • Tell me about the type of work you do.

  • How did you get into this line of work?

  • Where are you from originally?

Don't overstay your welcome

Monopolizing someone else's time hurts you and them. After you have made your first impression, say thank you, excuse yourself and move on. The art of networking comes in the follow up anyway.

With that said, if the conversation seems welcome, by all means continue. This is when having a few canned and interesting questions can help keep the conversation going. A few of my favorites:

  • The Beatles or Elvis? West coast rap or east coast rap? Team Kylo or Team Rey?

  • What superpower would you have, and why?

  • What is your favorite color and animal? Why?

Have your business card ready

I think business cards are so 2005. Today, you should be able to find contact information online for anyone you meet and you can keep notes about your meeting using the voice recorder on you phone.

With that said, some professionals and cultures still value business cards, so be prepared to swap if offered. Keep them handy and easily accessible, and know that in some cultures, you share business cards with a specific protocol.

Also, use this as an opportunity to stand out with a really unique business card. I have a functional card that includes a space where I can write a personalized note about our meeting.

Follow up

Of course, no advice would be complete without mentioning follow up, which is where the real art of networking comes in. This should be easy, as it gets you past the crowds and into the realm of one-on-one interactions -- which is where introverts excel.

For starters, I always advocate that there is only one way to properly follow up initially -- with a hand-written note. It is a gesture that demonstrates sincere effort that an email -- or worse, a text -- fall far short on.

Finally, at this point, you have made such a great impression that you can invite your new associate out for the crab cakes and cocktails you missed at the event.

Are you an introvert? What tips do you have for excelling in networking situations? Please share them with me on Twitter and Facebook.