Several years ago, I attended a birthday party for the son of a power couple. A media mogul I’ve always admired was also at the celebration, but I wasn’t sure that it was the right venue to start networking, and I let the opportunity slip away.
But even if I had I tried to find my way into his conversation, I wasn’t sure what I’d have said. “So, how about that bouncy castle?” “Can you pass the gummy bears?” “I’m in a dead-end job—can you help?” They all seemed wildly inappropriate.
While connecting with others through cyberspace is easier than ever, nothing beats an old-fashioned, face-to-face introduction. And let’s face it: Those introductions are bound to happen outside of strictly professional events—and often at dinner parties, weddings, and cocktail soirees.
So, if you have an event coming up and aren’t sure how to inject yourself into a conversation without feeling like an interloper, don’t worry. I spoke with two networking gurus who shared their insights for developing new professional contacts in any social setting.
Break the Ice
Stepping into a crowded room, especially one filled with people you don’t know, can be intimidating. To put yourself at ease, prepare a seven- to nine-second introduction before you arrive, suggests Susan RoAne, keynote speaker and bestselling author of How to Work a Room.
Your opener should also include some context as to what brought you to the event. For example, if you’re at a wedding, explain that the groom is your cousin. From there, engage in pleasant, friendly conversation, suggests RoAne, who notes that with so much information at our fingertips, you should never be at a loss for topics. Discuss the latest news, entertainment, or even that old small talk staple the weather—anything but the tired, “What do you do?” a phrase RoAne jokes she’d like to see banned. (She prefers, “What brought you here?”)
Though career coach Caitlin Graham agrees that you should try to keep the conversation social, invariably, she says, someone will ask how you make a living. And when they do, be transparent.
“If you’re out of work, mention you’re looking and give a little information about what you’re looking for—but keep it conversational. Believe it or not, most people do want to help other people. So most people in that conversation with you will inquire further and, if they’re able, offer to help with your search,” Graham says.
If no one jumps in with ideas, simply continue the conversation as if you weren’t looking for work. Because guests are there to have a good time and not think about work, it can be off-putting to have someone droning on endlessly about their qualifications. On that note:
Don’t Overdo It
So you’re actually in the same room with the CEO you believe could change your career trajectory. Now what?
First, resist the temptation to interrupt the conversation and pull him or her aside, RoAne says. If you’re approaching an animated group you’d like to join, she recommends standing on the periphery with agreeable body language. Most likely, someone in the group will make eye contact and include you. At that point, be friendly and blend in to the conversation.
If you really feel like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you cannot let slip by, go about it gracefully. “Start by saying, ‘I’m so glad I had a chance to meet you. Do you have a moment?’ If you are able to step away from the group, this is not a 20-minute upchuck of your resume,” the self-proclaimed Mingling Maven advises. “Instead, say, ‘So-and-so said you are the go-to person for...’ and then keep it brief. Exchange business cards and be very respectful of that person’s time.”
“Engage in a conversation; don’t pitch people,” Graham concurs. Rather than ambush a group with a “What can you do for me?” attitude, be focused on what you can add and possibly bring to the table that could benefit them. When in doubt, she says, employ some good rules of thumb from the dating world: Be yourself and be a good listener.
Follow Up and Follow Through
If you meet someone in a social setting who could be an incredibly useful contact, your goal should actually be to move the relationship forward—and into that more professional setting. Within two days of making a new connection, RoAne recommends sending an email letting that person know you enjoyed meeting him or her, and suggesting that you continue your initial conversation over a cup of coffee. Try, “It was so great to chat with you at Clare’s party. I’d love to hear more about what you do and what you’re working on—if you have a spare moment next week, I’d love to take you to coffee.”
Better yet, if you can offer your new connection something useful, do so. “This isn’t always possible, but if there’s some way that you can help that person, based on the initial meeting you had, then take the opportunity to do so in that initial follow-up,” Graham says. “Give them some helpful information or include a link to an article you thought they would find interesting. Don’t force it, though. This is only effective if it’s really apropos.”
When it comes to expanding your circle, think of networking as a lifestyle rather than simply a work-style. Going into a social situation armed with a smile, a ready intro, and some light topics can help get the conversation started and your connections growing.