I’ve written before about the guy who started swearing within seconds of meeting us at a networking event. Most of us are more professional at events than that, but it’s not uncommon to feel uncomfortable–like you’ve gone back in time to an awkward junior high school dance.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. The people who really excel at networking events often follow a similar strategy–one that you can use as well. It allows them to enjoy themselves, make good contacts, and leave feeling that their time has been well spent.

In the Wall Street Journal recently, Sue Shellenbarger interviewed experts and networkers who were trying to improve their performance about their best practices. Here’s the plan they described, organized in nine easy steps.

1. Do your homework.

There are two main ways to prepare for these kinds of events. The first is to research who will be there ahead of time, so that you have specific people in mind whom you want to meet.

The second is simply to be sufficiently informed and in the frame of mind to make interesting small talk–whether it’s about local issues, business, sports, or maybe a great article you read recently. You want a go-to conversation that won’t seem forced.

2. Read the room correctly.

There are a number of things to consider here, but in short, look for groups of people in which you can be a positive contributor.

“A tight circle of three to five people standing face-to-face in a closed O, maintaining eye contact and talking intently, might look intriguing,” Shellenbarger writes, “but they may be solving a pressing problem, making them too busy to greet someone new.”

3. Be helpful.

You know how they say that when it comes to your professional network, you have to make deposits before you can make withdrawals? That applies to in-person networking events as well. So, take the opportunity to help others by making introductions and sharing information before you try finding ways to benefit yourself.

4. Be ready to shake hands.

You’re there to meet people–not to tie one on or load up on food. So, Shellenbarger advises, it’s a good idea to make sure you always have at least one hand free. Sure, have a drink, eat some hors d’oeuvre, but make sure you can carry it all in your left hand.

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