Working a Room

Plenty of people find networking scary. It doesn’t have to be; and that’s partly because we can all fall back on a little civility. Here’s Mike’s tips for working a room full of people without annoying anyone!

We have already said how important networking is to small and start-up businesses.  Some people have asked us to expand on this topic – ‘yes, we know it’s important, but how does one actually do it?  In a room full of people?’ 

One barrier to good live networking is old-fashioned etiquette, that taught it was rude to speak briefly to people then move on.  Nice people listen carefully, we learnt.  We engage in conversation and only end the encounter once a reasonable amount of ground has been covered.  Modern networking operates by different rules.  Everyone is there to meet as many people as possible: the rule-breakers are the ones who try to monopolize others.  Skimming round the room is not a sign of superficiality but what everyone is there to do.

We like the analogy of speed dating.  Speed daters only have three minutes to make an impression on the other person, then have to move on.  This works really well (or so we’re told: we both have families).  The reason is, of course, that we all have powerful intuitive skills, and make up our minds incredibly quickly about the ‘click’ factor.  Probably the last two and a half of the three minutes are simply following up this initial impression.

Business, we’re told, is different.  Rational, process-driven.  We doubt it.  People buy from people; people create businesses with people.  Networking quickly will enable us to find who in the room are kindred spirits – the kind of people we are more likely to do business with.  As with the speed daters, the initial impression can be checked out later, in more formal meetings.

How do you prosper in this environment?  It isn’t just about being outgoing; there are tricks and tips.

First of all, do your preparation.  Good networking groups enable participants to glean information before the event.  For example all attendees at Beermat Monday leave a profile of themselves on our site.  Read through all these, and make a shortlist of people you want to meet.  Find a ‘conversation opener’ – profiles will say something about their interests.  ‘I see you’re a Spurs fan,’ works well with Mike (though don’t overdo the pity in your voice); Chris has just moved from Norfolk, so the old question about the mangelwurzel harvest may not work any longer.

You will soon find that your instinct has kicked in, and you either like this person or not.  If you don’t ‘click’, move on.  If you do click – move on, too.  You have other people to meet.  In both cases disengage politely.  Always accept a business card; unless you find someone utterly repellent, offer them one back.

Don’t be bound by your ‘shopping list’.  If you feel drawn to someone who looked irrelevant on paper, go with that feeling.

Next morning, make notes on the back of business cards.  Or, even better, have a filing system with boxes to tick – did you click; what subject of common interest did we find; how did we leave things?  Then follow up the people you liked.  (If this all sounds too cold, rethink.  Business is about people, but it is also about being business-like.)

In speed dating, if the attraction is only one-way, the introduction is not effected.  In the less structured world of networking, you are bound to get follow-ups from people you didn’t like.  Have another think about them; if you still think ‘no’ – well, it’s up to you.  Not to reply is probably less rude than being inauthentic and false-polite or being actually rude.

If you contact someone and they don’t reply – give it another try, as emails can get deleted by accident or just get de-prioritized on a busy day.  If you still get nowhere, back off.  You’ll probably meet them again, and maybe this time you’ll click.  Don’t hound people.  If you feel you are being hounded, send a polite email answering any specific questions but making it clear you are busy.  If they would like a brief chat at the next networking session…  In the meantime, remember to lock your pet rabbit up.

The need to network has upset traditional social etiquette, but has not turned social gatherings into free-for-alls.  New rules apply, that guard the integrity of the individual while allowing for more interaction.  Follow them, and enjoy the experience.


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