I attended a very large tech conference this week, the OurCrowd Summit in Jerusalem. There were thousands of people there, and trillions of dollars in the room. So I was surprised that many friends and colleagues whom I would have expected to see there simply did not show up. When I asked them why, they said they are not good at these kinds of events and they aren’t comfortable walking up to a stranger and making conversation.

Social anxiety is a very real thing, and sometimes it would shock you to hear when someone isn’t comfortable in networking scenarios, because they do such a great job covering it up. 

As an entrepreneur, you can’t deny the power of tech conferences as part of your marketing strategy, and it would be unfortunate to miss those opportunities because you feel awkward making small talk with strangers. But it doesn’t have to be small talk.

Here are three steps you can take to break the ice at conferences–or any event–without dreading it.

Ask questions. Then, listen more than you talk

Greek philosopher Epictetus is famously quoted as saying, “You have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Instead of walking over to someone and making conversation about you, your company, and how they can help you, flip it around. 

Ask about their work and actually listen. For example, get them to open up by asking, “What are your challenges?” Everyone has challenges in business, and someone who cares enough to ask about them is generally someone with whom I want to be connected. This is also one of the top ways I’ve managed to secure clients. After they open up about their challenges, I subtly mention ways I can assist.

Ask about their children, and consider sharing stories about yours, if you have any. Showing interest in their interests will warm them up.

Also, don’t be shy to ask how they would handle potential tough situations. That’s a tactic that has helped me spark connections and led to partnerships on multiple occasions. 

In my earlier days, I used to feel the need to talk more than listen, to prove my worth to the person I was interested in pitching. In hindsight, it made me no different than all the other marketers who pitch them 24/7. 

Use social media to find mutual connections before the event

Nothing makes a face-to-face meeting more comfortable than some mutual name dropping. If you and I have mutual friends, there is already something to talk about. Come prepared and kick off the conversation with, “Oh, I know you are close with Michelle, we go back to college days. She is one talented designer.” 

Assuming of course, the person agrees and doesn’t despise Michelle, that is a nice way to ease into conversation. If he does hate Michelle, well, the conversation is about to get interesting.

Also, in order to do this, you need to know whom you want to speak to, so researching who will be at an event is a crucial part of making the most of it. I lost count of how many people came up to me trying to figure out (for a little too long) whom we might have mutual connections with. It gets awkward pretty quickly.

Look for common experiences during the event

Finally, if you are both walking out of one of the lectures at the event, now would be a good time to ask something like: “What did you think? I would have liked him to go a bit deeper into the subject.” Ask the person’s opinion, share your own, and, voilà, you are now networking. 

Of course, if you struggle with anxiety this all may seem a lot harder than it sounds. Social anxiety is very real, and it is often paralyzing. But there are things you can do and words you can say that will instantly break the ice and get you into the swing of making the most of the events you do attend. After all, genuine conversations and curiosity are far more likely to lead to a real connection.