Written by Nisa Chitakasem, and originally posted on Forbes.com
Increasingly, we network by e-mail or through social media, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. That’s a godsend for shy people. You can listen to conversations and chime in on your own terms.
But sometimes there really is no substitute for being there–like when you attend professional meetings, seminars and receptions, or parties in your community. For those occasions, knowing how to “work the room” can make the difference between a boring waste of time, and an exhilarating event that expands your circle.
Walking into a room full of strangers can be intimidating. The best antidote is to go with a goal. Before you set foot in the place, think about what you want to accomplish. This will help you avoid wandering around aimlessly or trying to strike up forced conversations with people who don’t interest you. Here are some steps to take:
1. Go with a purpose. Remind yourself why you are there. You are using your precious time to network and to make some useful connections, so make sure you aren’t wasting energy. Set a couple of targets like: speak to three new people; or try to learn at least two new pieces of information or gossip.
2. Use inside contacts. If you know the event organizer and he or she is around during the event, ask for an introduction to key people who you ought to meet there. Having a warm overture will make the process of networking easier. It will also save you the time of trying to find people who you don’t know.
3. Be a lone ranger.If you’re attending the event with people you already know well, such as colleagues and friends, don’t fall into the trap of sticking together for the whole event. Talking to people who you already know will lessen your chances of meeting new ones. To extricate yourself, deliberately sit next to someone you don’t know during a talk or a meal that takes place during the event.
4. Get the lay of the land.Observe group formations before choosing whom to approach. Look for people who are most likely to respond positively. These would be individuals standing alone who are waiting for someone to talk to, or groups of twos and threes that are open to new participants. You can see this in their body language: if they are facing outward, chances are they are having a casual conversation and would be happy for others to join in.
5. Be aware of your own body language.Folding your arms in front of your body and looking at the floor forms a barrier between you and the other person and gives the impression that you don’t want to talk to them. In contrast, leaving your arms unfolded and maintaining eye contact will make them feel welcome.
6. Break the ice.Don’t feel like you have to say something profound. Breaking the ice can be as simple as commenting on the venue, the program or the food; asking people where they’ve traveled from or whether they’ve been to the event or place before; or expressing an interest in why they are attending.
7. Mind your handshake. Most meetings start with a cordial handshake. Put out your full hand, avoiding the half-handed (and halfhearted) grip, which can feel like a cold fish. Shake firmly, but don’t make it a bone crusher. Maintain eye contact and smile as you greet your new potential contact.
8. Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that ask who, what, where, when and how – as opposed to questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Your goal is to explore ideas and opinions and also to show your listening skills.
9. Go easy on the business cards.Make each one count, rather than handing them out like a meaningless pamphlet. It’s not about volume–it’s about quality contacts. Be ready to hand out a business card if someone requests it or you think that you have a made a good solid new connection. Forcing it on someone who doesn’t seem to want it just makes you look desperate.
10. Be generous. Offer to help where you can and don’t expect anything in return. Most people appreciate a favor and want to reciprocate. In time, your virtue may turn out to be its own reward.