Networking conferences are an opportunity to make new industry contacts, connect with a mentor, or even land your next job. You won’t get very far, however, if you spend the entire conference talking to just one person or hovering around other people’s conversations. I know that introducing yourself to a new group of people can be uncomfortable for even the most confident professionals. From the initial greeting to a polite exit strategy, practicing what you’re going to say in advance will boost your confidence and maximize your impact. Keep the following in mind:

1. Master your elevator speech.
Cut to the chase: practice describing yourself in 15 seconds or less. Get comfortable covering the most pertinent details about your current job or professional path in two to three sentences. Tailor your message points to the conference’s audience and your goals as an attendee. For example, if your primary goal is to make new sales contacts, don’t side track the conversation by discussing your 15-year professional trajectory! Finally, keep your elevator speech jargon-free. Building rapport is the key to effective networking. You can’t build rapport if people don’t understand what you’re saying or struggle to follow your train of thought.

2. Don’t hover around a single person.
This is conference etiquette 101, but some attendees inevitably forget: don’t hover around a single person. I call this being a “sniper”. You’re so locked in on a single target – a high-profile speaker, an attendee you want as a mentor, a potential client – that you overwhelm this person and make a negative first impression. Worse, you miss out on opportunities to engage with other attendees. Connect with three to four people before you decide to go back and focus time on a single person. You might even surprise yourself by making an unexpected contact who turns out to be more beneficial than your earlier target!

3. Listen first; speak second.
At conferences, it’s easy for short meet-and-greets to turn into transactions. Many conversations follow a version of this script: “Here’s what I do and why you should hire me or buy my product. Now take my business card and find me on LinkedIn!” Instead of immediately going into pitch mode, ask the person for his opinion on a new industry challenge, what projects he’s working on right now, or how he got involved in his field. These questions demonstrate you’re interested in more than just job or sales opportunities. They also reveal new, useful information about the person that you can’t learn by just scanning their LinkedIn profile. You can then tailor what you say to this person’s needs and interests, such as mentioning how your company is approaching the same industry challenge.

4. Collect business cards.
Whoever has contact information controls the flow of the follow up process. Don’t depend on people to reach out to you. While it’s great to hand out business cards, focus on collecting cards rather than distributing them. If you have a moment in between sessions, jot down a few key details on the back of each card to jog your memory when you send a follow-up message.

5. Master your exit strategy.
Knowing how to bow out gracefully from a conversation is just as critical a skill as knowing how to introduce yourself. Even when you’ve met someone interesting, after a short conversation it’s time to excuse yourself to meet other people or explore other conference opportunities. How you wrap up the conversation sets the tone for your next interaction. Here are a few lines to keep in your back pocket:

  • “Alicia, it was a pleasure speaking with you, but I need to say hello to a few more folks here. Can I get your contact info for later?”
  • “Alicia, I really enjoyed our conversation. Will you be at the happy hour this evening? I’d love to introduce you to my colleague Greg, who is also dealing with the same challenge.”
  • “Alicia, I really appreciate your insights on this industry problem. Our company is dealing with something similar. I’d love to pick your brain over lunch– could I get your contact info?”

Networking conferences aren’t always smooth sailing, especially if you’re introverted. A little advance preparation can go a long way, laying the groundwork to confidently meet attendees and maximize your networking impact.