We all dread it: that panicky, palm-sweating moment of walking into a noisy, crowded networking event—and realizing everybody there is a total stranger. Thankfully, there is a better solution than standing quietly against the back wall for the whole evening. What if, instead of entering with nervousness, you entered with confidence, knowing you were armed with tools to easily approach and talk to anyone?
As an executive coach, my job is to make every client feel relaxed and comfortable talking to me. After all, coaching doesn’t work if the client can’t be open and honest. That’s why I’ve honed these five easy and proven tips to help you start a flowing conversation with anyone.
1. Have an interesting answer to ‘How are you?’ Out of politeness, many people will greet you with words similar to “Hi. How are you?” Instead of blowing that off with a nervous automatic response of “Good. How are you?” I add one sentence that tells a story. “I’m great. I just listened to this interesting podcast about leadership on my way over here that really got me thinking,” or “I’m energized; I had a meeting cancellation earlier and I was able to sneak off and go for a run during lunch.” Immediately, there’s an opening for us to now have an interesting conversation.
2. Come prepared with a small talk story. Small talk can be turned into an interesting conversation if you have a few stories prepared to make the transition. I live in Switzerland, so you can imagine all of the small talk in the winter tends to revolve around skiing. The problem is, I don’t ski. But, I did recently have a chance to speak with a former Olympic gold-medalist skier, so I asked her for a few interesting stories and some tips for me to get over my fear of skiing. Now I’m ready to contribute to a skiing story when it (inevitably) comes up at a networking event.
3. Remember that they probably feel uncomfortable, too. It always surprises me when I approach highly accomplished and successful professionals (think CEOs, multimillionaires, professors, you name it), and they admit to me they are introverts and feel uncomfortable networking. Many of them thank me for approaching them so they had someone to talk to, as if I were the one doing them the favor. If you remember that we are all just humans, and you’re the brave one helping others to feel more comfortable, it can give you the courage to approach them.
4. Tell an authentic, slightly embarrassing story about yourself. While we’re speaking about courage, here’s a tip that requires a little more vulnerability than the others but pays off tremendously. As soon as I meet someone new, I hit the fast-forward button to imagine that I’ve known them for a few months. Then, I tell them stories and treat them like I would a friend as opposed to a stranger or an acquaintance. I might share the cringe-worthy visit I’d had that afternoon from an angry neighbor complaining that my daughter had poked him in the behind with her umbrella. The story isn’t flattering, and it certainly doesn’t make me look wonderful, but it’s completely human, real and relatable (and, unfortunately, totally true). This sharing of an imperfect story gives the other person silent permission that they also don’t have to pretend to be perfect in front of you. From there, the atmosphere can relax, and the acquaintance awkwardness can melt away quickly.
5. Have a smooth exit strategy. Sometimes there’s just no natural chemistry between two people, but being stuck in a downhill conversation shouldn’t be added to your list of networking worries. Instead, an exit can be as simple as having a reason to leave the location where you’re talking, like to get another drink or use the restroom. For a more subtle closing that maintains the relationship but doesn’t keep you trapped with one person for the whole evening, close out the conversation with an opening for further discussions. I might ask the person if I can send them an interesting article related to the topic we’re discussing, and then request their business card for the contact details. Once I have their business card, I can thank them for the whole conversation and mention that I’m looking forward to being in contact again tomorrow. These cues will send the message that the conversation is over for now but the relationship can be continued going forward.
As you can see, the trick to success is in the preparation. Don’t leave a networking connection to chance: Come prepared to create your confidence, success and luck. Armed with stories, you can feel confident about being able to approach people and having interesting contributions to add to the conversation. And don’t worry if you’re an introvert—most of the others attending are feeling just as intimidated as you may be. At least you can connect over being intimidated together.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com