Does the idea of a room filled with strangers make you want to find a dark corner to curl up in and hide? You aren’t alone; not every future CPA is a natural-born schmoozer. But networking is crucial for your success so, terrifying as it may seem, it’s time to emerge from your cocoon and spread those social butterfly wings. With a few strategies and a little practice, your fellow networkers will never know you’re an introvert. And hey, you might even have fun.

Plan what to say

Avoid awkward silences by having a few conversation starters (figuratively) in your back pocket. Pick three or four topics that you can spend roughly a minute chatting about, and don’t be afraid to use them on everyone you meet. You may feel like you’ve said the same thing a thousand times, but it will be the first time your new friend has heard it from you.

Your preparation should also include an “elevator pitch” — a 30 second summary of who you are, where you’ve been, what you’re doing, and where you want to go in your career. It would also be good to be prepared to speak about why you’re at the event and what you’re hoping to accomplish there.

Get there and get excited

Sometimes convincing yourself that you’ll have a good time is the biggest battle of the night. Go to events with a positive attitude and maybe a friend for moral support (but not a crutch — remember, the point is to meet new people). If you expect that you’ll have a good night, you’ll have more fun — and so will the people you talk to.

Find out what you have in common

The best way to help people like you is for you to make a connection with them, so look for one. Ask where she grew up and went to school (maybe you know someone from there) or what his hobbies are (perhaps you both play golf or like building boats in bottles). Local sports also tend to bring people together, so checking the news and ESPN for scores a few minutes before an event never hurts.

Joining a professional organization that holds networking events automatically gives you something in common with everyone at the party. And, if it’s your state society, you know that whoever you talk to is a CPA (or on their way to being one). Ask about the CPA Exam, their alma mater, and for advice — especially if they are further into their career. Everyone loves to give advice.

Keep them talking, but not all evening

You want to make sure the people you meet know what you’re about, but the best way for an introvert to make friends is by listening. People often love to talk about themselves and their interests (after all, they are the expert in that area), so it makes them happy if you listen intently and smile. Also avoid crossing your arms, it makes people feel like you’re pulling away from them, and make sure you maintain eye contact – just not in a creepy way.

Remember, though, that you don’t want to get caught talking to Chatty Cathy all night. Plan a graceful way to exit conversations in advance and try to use their name so they know you remember it. It can be simple, like: “It’s been really great to chat with you tonight. Here’s my card. I’d love to hear updates on that new project, Jim.” or “Ruth, thanks for letting me know about the conference that’s coming up. I hope to run into you there.”

You’re expected to talk to a lot of people at networking events, so it’s not rude for you or your new friend to exchange business cards and kindly excuse yourselves to chat up someone else. It’s the circle of networking.

Follow up

With any luck, you’ll meet someone you want to get in touch with outside of the networking event. Make sure you get their business card, and take a second to jot down things that will help you remember your conversation when you next connect.

Within 48 hours of the event, follow up with the newest members of your network. Call or email them to say you enjoyed the conversation and really do intend to continue your relationship. This is where your notes come in handy — mentioning something specific will personalize the message.

Never, ever send a mass email.

As your relationship grows, periodically send relevant blogs, websites or news stories. If you talked about a new business venture in hot air ballooning and see a New York Times article about how that industry is heating up, send an email with a few words about the article’s main point and how it might be useful to them. If you’re being useful in a relationship, the feeling of being pushy or awkward floats away.

Just do it

Remember: The point of networking events is to get to know people. You are expected to join conversations that you didn’t start and leave ones that you did, even though it might seem rude or awkward in another setting. Prepare as much as you can so you won’t be afraid. And don’t forget to enjoy the experience.

Looking for a place to try out your new skills? Find an organization to join.