Like most good things, working a room is not rocket science, but plain common sense. What I'm about to share with you is not secret information known only to a privileged few. Thus, you may have already come across this information in your respective travels. On the other hand, you might find my take on this topic has a point of view you hadn't thought of before. In the interest of full disclosure, I originally developed this presentation for job seekers, whose need to network is very strong. But networking is important to everyone, because the more people know you, the more successful you will be. I should also add that a lot of what I'm about to talk about was inspired by the work of Susan RoAne, a public speaker and professional mingler. I'll mention her again at the end of the presentation.
The phrase "Working a Room" brings to mind a politician moving around a crowded room shaking hands and kissing babies. The politician's purpose is to meet as many people as possible, make a positive impression, and gain a supporter. When you're in a business environment, you'll find that being able to meet people, get to know them - and most importantly - have them get to know you, is an important skill to have.
You need to be prepared to meet people singly and in groups at any time, especially around holiday periods when there may be informal gatherings of all sorts. Be very reluctant to turn down any invitations you receive to such gatherings. You never know whom you might meet.
Make it a habit to carry business cards, if you have them, wherever you go, even when you're just out informally.
People will be attracted to a friendly, open stance and a pleasant look on your face. Unless they already know you well, a standoffish appearance will put a barrier between you and anyone you want to meet. So how can you make yourself more charming?
Let's begin with identifying what charm is. Most of what we call charm is simply behavior. That's good because behavior can be learned. Practice will make you more skilled at it. So what kind of behavior are we talking about? A lot of it is body language. Smiling when you meet someone is an important step. Looking them in the eye when either of you is talking is another. Don't try to stare them down - just a quick touch with your eyes is all that's necessary. Physical acknowledgements like nodding or shaking your head, a laugh or a grin at the appropriate moment - these are behavioral indicators that you're paying attention. Exclamations such as "Really!" "Oh no," or "Wow!" are verbal indicators of your attention.
We all know people who we'd consider charming. Next time you're with someone like that, watch them and see how they conduct themselves, then imitate them. Or think about people who are in the public eye. Some are charming, others not so much. Can you think of some examples of the charmers? How about the opposite?
Charm is what keeps your conversations going and makes people want to come back for more. Chutzpah is what you'll need to get the conversation going. Never heard the word chutzpah? It's actually a Yiddish word, but is coming into common usage. It's hard to translate its definition into English, but it comes close to being something like courage, nerve, or audacity. If you're one of those people for whom meeting strangers is an anxiety-provoking experience, chutzpah provides the courage to step up to someone you don't know and introduce yourself.
Here's a story to illustrate chutzpah:
On his route to work, a guy passes an old woman selling pretzels for a quarter. He gives her a quarter every day, but never takes a pretzel. This goes on for months. One day he gives the woman a quarter, and she says to him, "Pretzels have gone up - they're 35 cents now."
Of course, the classic example of chutzpah is the guy who murders his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan!
When you're working a room for the purpose of extending your network, it helps to have a plan worked out in advance.
Setting a goal for the number of people you will meet helps you to structure your time more efficiently. First figure out how much unstructured time you think you'll have - 20 minutes, half an hour, more? Then give yourself 15 minutes per new acquaintance, and do the math.
So where do you start? You could look for someone who looks lonely or more miserable than you. That might help you to feel superior, and make it easier for you to initiate contact. In any case, it's easier to begin with just one other person. But first you might have to overcome the dreadful fantasy of someone who says "Ugh" when you stick your hand out for a handshake. The fact is it's just a fantasy. It hardly ever happens.
Avoid trying to break into a twosome. An existing pair is often a closed system, and will be hard to penetrate by yourself. Go for a larger group, which tends to be more permeable.
If a group is involved in a general conversation, wait on the fringe for a few minutes to orient yourself to what is going on, then seize an appropriate opportunity to add your two cents. Once you've been accepted, begin introducing yourself to the persons nearest you and circulate through the group to meet others.
You're not going to "click" with everyone. After a few minutes, you'll be able to tell whether this is a person you want to have any further contact with. If not, gracefully find a way to break off contact - go to the bathroom, get a drink, etc. You can even be honest - to a degree - and say "It's been interesting talking to you. I was intending to meet as many people as possible today, so I guess I'll be moving on to talk to someone else now. So long."
If you think there's a basis for a future relationship between you and the other person, suggest that you get together at a time when it's not so crowded. Exchange cards and say you'll call to set something up. It could go like this:
"I've enjoyed talking with you today, but I don't want to monopolize your time here. I'd like to get together with you again soon to tell you more about what I'm up to. Can I have a card? I'll call you in the next day or two to set up a meeting in a less frantic environment. See you soon."
Don't let too much time go by before following up. People are busy, and it doesn't take long for them to forget what you talked about originally, and then you have to start all over again.
Also remember to make a note on the back of the person's card about where you met, and any notes about the reason for your follow up.
We've already established that walking into a room full of people you don't know can be unsettling. You can gain courage by practice and by having a clear plan of how you're going to approach people and what you're going to say to them.
The use of small talk as a communication bridge is a skill worth cultivating. Many people say they're "no good" at small talk. Certainly, if it's not something you do routinely you might feel awkward at first, but you really can develop small talk as a networking skill that will stay with you the rest of your life.
Let's drill down a little more about the specifics of small talk.
While the specific content may be light weight, you can use small talk to get to know one another and build the foundation for later trust and confidence if the relationship progresses that far.
Small talk is about light topics that don't carry a lot of emotional impact. Of course, it's hard to know what impacts a stranger, but in general there are some safe topics, such as the weather, sports, non-ethnic jokes or stories, light news stories, etc. This is not the time to discuss gun control or abortion.
Occasionally I'll talk with people who tell me they don't know anything about sports, aren't interested, etc. If you're one of those people, the good news is that you don't need to be an expert on sports. You don't have to know anybody's batting average, nor do you need to know how to compute a slugging percentage. On the other hand, if you live in St. Louis, you need to know who Albert Pujols is and that he will wind up in the Hall of Fame. You have to know that the Rams are rebuilding, and that the Chicago Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup [that's Hockey, folks]. In other words, you need to be familiar with the high points and the headlines. If you're not from St. Louis, you should be familiar with the major figures and standings of your local teams. All that takes is a scan of the headlines in the sports section of the paper.
You should probably be in the habit of at least scanning the news section of your local paper or the Wall St. Journal. Scan through a copy of Time or Newsweek, or better yet, Business Week or Fortune Magazine. That will be enough to allow you to keep up your end of a conversation that doesn't get too deep into the topic.
Cultivate the art of getting people to talk about themselves. Ask open ended questions about families, interests, and business, and share your own information appropriately and in kind. Look for areas of commonality and pursue them. That will take you comfortably away from topics you're unsure about, and toward topics you can speak on with some authority.
If you hit it off with someone, you'll know in fairly short order. The conversation will remain fresh and lively, and you'll both smile a lot.
At some point, find a way to work in your business information - without making it look like you're asking the other person to buy something. That will make them uncomfortable and the conversation will get awkward and come to quick end.
You might want to develop (in advance) a "Two Minute Autobiography" and use the main points from that to develop questions you can ask the other person. Be sure to match the other's statements with similar statements about yourself.
You can express interest in the other person both verbally and nonverbally. Being verbal is clearer and preferable, although it might be hard at first.
Whenever possible, talk about what you know about, and bring your enthusiasm to the conversation. Avoid going into lecture mode, and just touch the high points. Listen carefully to what others say about themselves, and ask follow up questions to express your interest.
Even if the other person is very attractive, avoid undressing them with your eyes or making any kind of sexual innuendo. It's an immediate turn-off.
Stay away from any kind of humor that depends on putting someone else down, even if Jay Leno used it the night before.
You might feel more comfortable having some kind of opening line you can begin with. What are your favorite opening lines? . . . Remember to stay away from clichés and bad bar pickup lines like What's your sign? Or What's a nice girl (!) like you doing in a place like this?
Working a room is an important networking skill that you will carry into the rest of your career. It will help you to feel more comfortable in any unstructured social situation, so the benefits go beyond just business relationships.
If you'd like to know more, pick up a couple of paperback books, both by Susan RoAne, also known as the Maven of Mingling:
"How to Work a Room"
"The Secrets of Savvy Networking"