Commentary: How to be a super schmoozer at networking events
One of the bleakest terms in the English language for many of us is “networking event”. There were people I used to admire for being master minglers.
The other day, I was about to head off to a business drinks party when I made a galling discovery. Scrolling through my emails to check on the address, I discovered the date of the event had been changed — to the evening before.
“Bullet dodged,” said a colleague who assumed I would be pleased to have missed two hours of small talk with strangers over a warm glass of chardonnay.
As it happened he was wrong. I had been looking forward to seeing some guests I knew from abroad who would be hard to meet again in person. In general though he would have been right.
One of the bleakest terms in the English language for many of us is “networking event”.
Among the few upsides of the pandemic was the absence of such things. But now that they are back with force my colleague’s reaction reminded me that, pre-Covid, there were people I used to admire for being master minglers.
They may not have been in the league of United States President Joe Biden, whose ability to work a room is formidable. But they knew how to circulate graciously, efficiently and apparently effortlessly.
How did they do it? I called a few to ask and here are my conclusions.
First up, the elite schmoozer is likely to be clever and innately outgoing, though these qualities alone do not explain their success.
Most I spoke to insisted they felt all the normal work event anxieties: Being stranded alone in a room of strangers; getting the cold shoulder when trying to gently muscle in on a conversation; forgetting people’s names.
The difference is that they do something most people never do: They prepare. They think about who is going to be there, who they want to see and what sorts of things they can feasibly talk about once they begin a conversation.
If this seems calculating it’s because it is. But it makes it less likely you will do what I once did at a business event where I asked a man I’d just met what he did at the moderately large company he told me he worked at. “Chief executive,” he said.
This is a reminder that successful minglers make a point of introducing themselves, properly, to prevent such awkward conversational holes.
The matter of conversation itself is obviously also important.
Here, it helps to be bright, charming and well-read but if you are not, you can at least learn to avoid the more obnoxious habits of the work function bore.
One of the reasons I suspect so many editions of the US bestseller, How to Work a Room, have been published since the first in 1988 is that its author, Susan RoAne, devotes an entire chapter to such people.
Among the worst are the self-absorbed blowhards who use every conversational gap as a springboard to drone on about themselves in a way that is, as Ms RoAne says, “not only obvious but also mildly offensive”.
Successful mixers are good listeners. They also avoid the tedious behaviour of the networker who remorselessly scans the room for better options.
These people are best dodged, which leads to one of the most vexing room-working matters — knowing how to politely extricate oneself from a conversation without causing offence.
This is where the truly adept mingler stands out.
None of the experts I consulted thought much of my preferred strategy of announcing a need to visit the lavatory, a fail-safe ploy with admittedly limited application.
Most approved of another common tactic: Asking if anyone would like another drink and heading to the bar.
This can prompt a clean break from those one wishes to detach oneself from and even if it does not, it means, as one expert put it, “the seal has been broken” and detachment is more likely.
The more dexterous speed up this process by latching on to passers-by and introducing them into the conversation, though this takes care and skill.
Ultimately, there is much to be said for simple honesty. A work event generally involves an element of work, so it is fine to say exactly what I have so often been told myself.
“It’s been lovely to talk but I must catch up with someone else before I leave. Let’s do this again!” FINANCIAL TIMES
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Pilita Clark is an associate editor and business columnist at the Financial Times where she writes on corporate life and climate change.
Related topicscareer office culture work life workplace
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