Make a to-do list. Purposeless networking is extra-daunting. Before heading to an event, jot down what you want to get out of it, says Cheryl Palmer, a career coach based in Washington, D.C. Examples: gaining intel on a particular company, catching a specific speaker, or saying hello to former colleagues who will probably be in attendance.
Stay only 20 minutes. "It's perfectly fine to promise yourself that you'll leave within a half hour, as long as you accomplish your goals," says Michelle Tenzyk, the president of East Tenth Group, a human resources and leadership consulting firm in New York City. But don't be a stickler. "If you happen to be having a good time," says Tenzyk, "stay longer."
Think quality, not quantity. Strive to "make one or two new meaningful connections with people whose company you enjoy," says Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking ($10, bn.com). Don't push yourself to shake every hand in the room. Susan Jewkes Allen, a San Francisco–based career coach (and an introvert), has had luck with this plan. She recalls attending events with an extremely extroverted CEO who aimed to collect as many business cards as possible. "I would set a much smaller, focused goal," she says. "I'd try to meet, say, four people who work in business development, which was my field at the time. And in the end the CEO and I would realize the same results."
Script your intro. Samuel C. Pease, a managing director at New Directions, an executive career-coaching firm in Boston, helps clients draft a three-sentence elevator pitch that nails down their unique talents, their professional background, the kinds of jobs they're seeking, and the "ask"—a.k.a. the next thing they need. Not sure how to craft your own pitch? Get the basics down first, including what might bring you closer to your larger goal (inside info on new ventures in your field, say, or a personal introduction to a power player). Then put this into language that feels natural, not forced, coming out of your mouth. Practice in the mirror. Also, be prepared with a few specific questions. Once you get someone else talking, you can relax and listen.
Duck out now and then. If you're at a big event, like a conference, resist the pressure to attend too many panels and parties, says Cain. Taking much-needed breaks helps introverts recharge. Return to your hotel room, go for a walk, or find a quiet spot in the lobby where you can decompress. As you probably know, introverts draw energy from being alone, while extroverts draw it from being around others. Stepping away for a few minutes will help you come back stronger.