On the spectrum of things to dread, networking doesn’t have to rank near dentist appointments and airport delays. Believe it or not, it can be fun—and you can walk away with real contacts who can help you with your career. Networking pros share their tricks for stress-free, effective meet-and-greets.

1. GET THERE ON TIME.

If you show up late to a networking event, people will have already formed groups, making it harder and more intimidating to break in, says Devora Zack, CEO of Only Connect Consulting and the author of numerous books including Networking for People who Hate Networking. “If you’re not comfortable going up to people you don’t know, [doing so is] not a good idea,” Zack says. At the beginning of the event, the atmosphere is more casual and there are smaller groups that are easier to join, she says.

2. VOLUNTEER AT THE EVENT.

Working the event gives you a sense of purpose as well as an automatic reason to talk to everyone, Zack says. After directing the guests to the sign-in table, for example, you can introduce yourself and pass along your business card.

3. CHANGE UP THE CONVERSATION.

Don't rely on stale standbys as icebreakers. “A slight change can be quite interesting," Zack says. Instead of asking where they work, ask "What is something you love about your work?" "Think of questions that are interesting to you," Zack recommends.

4. DON'T ASK FOR FAVORS IMMEDIATELY.

You never want your new contacts to feel like you’re using them for their status or connections, says Dorie Clark, an adjunct professor at Duke University and author of Stand Out. “Avoid that problem by focusing exclusively on building the relationship for many months before you ask for anything,” she says. The exception: If they offer to make a connection.

5. STAY POSITIVE.

It’s very tempting to talk about what’s wrong (with the event, your company, your personal life, or the weather), and it’s alarming how often people do this, Zack says. Instead, make positive comments that allow people to see you as the great, optimistic person you are.

6. MAKE A SMOOTH EXIT.

You want to end the conversation before the other person gets tired of talking to you—and you also want to network with as many people as possible. Zack offers two suggestions for ending one conversation gracefully so you can move on to the next: With a warm, genuine smile, say either, "It’s been great talking to you, but I promised myself that I’d circulate," or "I’m sure you want to meet other people—do you have a card?"

7. FOLLOW UP.

There’s little value in networking if you don’t maintain the relationship, Clark says. A few days after meeting, send a follow-up email. Then, use topics you've connected on previously as reasons to reach out every so often. “For instance, if you learn they’re a football fan, you can email them when their team makes the playoffs. Or if you hear they’re planning a trip abroad in a few months, you can shoot them a note afterward to see how it went,” Clark says.