Sometimes it can be tough to venture away from the refreshments table to meet new people. Industry conferences are valuable networking opportunities, but they’re also chaotic and nerve-wracking. Entering a crowd of fellow professionals feels a bit like making those initial introductions at college orientation. But putting yourself out there is essential, for, just as that coed you forced yourself to talk to in college became your late night pizza eating partner, the professional you bravely walk up to might be your ticket to a new and exciting business opportunity.

Put your best foot forward and follow these networking tips the next time you attend a conference:

Figure Out Who to Meet

If you stumble blindly into a conference with no idea of the speakers or attendees’ identities, you will come away with few valuable connections. Chatting with a few random strangers is fine, but be sure to also target people who can help you further your business. These include keynote speakers and panelists, of course, but also other attendees with inside knowledge surrounding partnerships, clients and other opportunities you’d like to explore. Many conference websites offer lists of confirmed attendees and where they work, so take some time to scour these lists and look up a few registered conference attendees on LinkedIn.

Connect First on Social Media

Typically, conference attendees meet one another first and then send social media invites after the conference. Switch up the pattern and, after checking out the list of attendees, send a few of them messages on LinkedIn, letting them know that you’d like to meet up. If they’re open to the idea, you can set up a specific time and place to meet. This is an effective strategy for meeting panelists; if you don’t schedule a meeting, you may be forced to wait in line for ages before you score a brief conversation. Suggest meeting before the presentation, when panelists and keynote speakers aren’t quite as busy.

Ask the Right Questions

By the time you get to your fifth meet-and-greet, you’ve likely tired of discussing where you’re from and which companies you’ve worked for. Change up your conversations by asking more interesting questions. Ideally, these will be open-ended queries that allow your fellow conference attendee to share the true source of his or her passion. In addition, you may be able to help a fellow attendee with a business goal, opening up an opportunity for partnership. Examples of excellent questions include:

  • Which of the panelists would you most like to talk to, and why?
  • What breakout sessions are you most interested in?
  • What sparked your interested in this industry?
  • What are your business goals?
  • What type of introductions would help your business?

Volunteer

If you struggle with networking, you may find it easier to meet fellow industry leaders while volunteering at a conference. These events are hard work to put on, and volunteers are always appreciated. Not only will you be forced to break out of your shell and interact with others, you may score free or discounted admission. You also will make a great impression on fellow attendees, who will appreciate your charitable nature.

As with most things in life, you get out what you put in while attending conferences. Make the most of this networking opportunity and arrive armed with a plan. The more strategy you employ, the more opportunities will come your way.