How to Work a Room
Unless you’re a hermit, there will come a time when you have to attend a work function or event that requires you to make intelligent conversation with a room full of strangers. There are a few tips that I recommend to make the dreaded networking a little easier.
- Look good. A crisp haircut and suit or a flattering dress says ‘I am a professional,’ and a professional image is critically important for the social side of career development. Looking good is an automatic ice-breaker, especially if your colleagues are used to seeing you dressed down in the office. Someone is almost guaranteed to compliment you, which serves a dual purpose: a. it boosts your confidence, and b. it gives you the opportunity to say something nice in return, which makes it easy to naturally continue a conversation and/or segue into the next topic.
- Smile. Be approachable. Scowling or looking helpless is not a good way to draw in the crowd. You may feel like going home to your coach and watching Seinfeld reruns but you never know who you may meet or what nugget of gold someone might offer that you can use later. Pep yourself up with a few ‘You can do it’s!’ in the mirror. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself to start a conversation. Being up front about your nervousness is one way to break the ice. Unless the person is a grinch, they will sympathize or empathize with you and perhaps share similar feelings. Either way, they’ll talk to you, and thus, you’ll have opened the door to continued conversation.
- Talk about what you know. The worst thing you can do for your image is to pretend to be a CRM guru when your specialty is database administration. In some cases, it’s perfectly in order to fake it until you make it, but going too far in the opposite direction when you don’t really have a leg to stand on won’t make you look confident. It can, in fact, make you look like an idiot with delusions of grandeur, not to mention a liar. And if you think the person you’re talking to won’t use your ill-timed words to break the ice with the next person, you really are deluding yourself!
- Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ It’s inevitable that one day someone will ask you the exact question you’ve been worrying about. Either you don’t have the answer, or you won’t have the answer until right after the party or event. Perhaps you’ll be attending a training session on that very topic in just a few days. Whatever the reason, don’t be afraid to admit that currently, you don’t have all of the information. Don’t just say “I don’t know” or “I have no idea” and look blank. Qualify that statement. Offer related information, acknowledge the new info with something like, “That’s a good question. I’ll have to ask – and get back to you.” Then be sure you follow up. Never say you’re going to do something and leave it hanging. It damages your credibility. Whereas if you follow up, you’ll develop a reputation as that guy or girl who effectively closes the information loop.
- Exit gracefully. Use natural pauses in conversation to exit a conversation. Or, excuse yourself with a polite smile and something like, “Please excuse me: I see someone I’ve been trying to catch all night. I hope we can continue this conversation later.” That way you’re not necessarily obligated to speak to that same person again, but the door is open to return if you suddenly find yourself adrift in a room full of strangers. And after you’ve shown your face and deemed it safe to flee the scene, be sure you say good night to your boss or immediate supervisor. Someone needs to confirm that you were indeed present and accounted for before you disappear for the night.