How to Work a Room: Tips From Networking Professionals

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Feb 24, 2009
“The first networking event I ever attended, I lasted five minutes,” says Liz Lynch, author of Smart Networking (McGraw Hill, 2008) and founder of the Center for Networking Excellence. “As an introvert who was new to networking, it was intimidating and overwhelming to walk into a room where 200 strangers were already well on their way to getting to know each other,” she says. Over the years, she has gained confidence and now finds herself at home at events of 5,000 or more.

Lynch is not alone, and most HR consultants can empathize. Networking is not a skill that comes naturally to many people.

Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president of Workforce Learning, LLC, a leadership training firm that helps C-level executives and managers improve relationships. It can be helpful for HR consultants to read the many books and articles available on the topic of networking, if for no other reason than to gain confidence in knowing that they are not alone in their aversion to the thought, says Waagen. “It’s against our innate human nature to go up and talk to strangers, so everybody feels an aversion at these events,” she says.

It can help HR consultants to change their definition of what networking is all about, says Joe Taksh, a performance management consultant and author of Results Through Relationships: Building Trust, Performance, and Profit Through People (Wiley, 2008).

“The biggest misnomer about networking is that it is about getting,” says Taksh. In fact, it is about giving, he says. “The more investment we make in giving to other people and committing to the courageous act of networking, the more likely we are going to be reciprocated in kind,” he says.

Attitude is critical. “Everything has to do with self-worth, really believing in your own value,” says Taksh. “The self-talk going in starts to fuel whether or not you’re a magnet for people,” he says.

Lynch advises HR consultants to practice starting conversations ahead of time. “Connections happen through conversations, so have a couple of standard opening lines in your back pocket,” she suggests. Two that work well are: “What brings you to the event?” and “Is this your first time here?” she says.

Start with the End in Mind

Networking should be considered a professional activity and not a casual event. It is important to start with the end in mind, says Waagen. “The most important lesson I learned early on is to establish for yourself your goal or objective before you go to the event,” she says. “That way you keep focused and don’t get distracted by the hors d’oeuvres, the drinks or your best buddy across the room,” she notes. In addition, having a goal in mind allows HR consultants to evaluate the value of the event later and determine whether it is a group they wish to continue to pursue.

Dale Chapman Webb, director of The Protocol Centre in Coral Gables, Fla., and former vice president of development for a university, agrees. “Always have an agenda—networking is socializing with a plan,” he says. “Do your research on what the event is and who you might meet. Think about what you want to accomplish,” he advises.

“Your job is not to go where you enjoy yourself; your job is to go where your prospective clients enjoy themselves,” Waagen emphasizes.

Listen Well

Without question the most important and most oft-cited key to effective networking is being a good listener.

“Forget the elevator speeches and the infomercials about yourself that are often advocated,” advises Jeanne Hurlbert, Ph.D., a network coach who heads, a group that helps businesspeople—primarily businesswomen—build social networks. While HR consultants must be able to say succinctly who they are and what they do, these pronouncements should not sound canned. Instead, focus on listening, say Hurlbert and others. “If you listen intently to your conversational partner, you’ll pick up quickly on cues that will help you connect,” says Hurlbert.

“There is an overlooked component to great listening, and it’s asking open-ended questions,” notes Taksh. “Getting people to open up engages them, and through engagement you create possible opportunities for future business,” he says. “We all love to tell our stories. And, by doing that, you create common ground and common links,” he says.

Following are some additional tips from networking experts on how to work a room effectively:

Wear name tags wisely—pinned to your upper right shoulder area. “Most people are right handed and will extend their right hand,” says Waagen. “If your name tag is within their view, they don’t have to search around.” Worst spots: for women, hanging in front of their chest—for all, attached to the bottom of a jacket or pocket.

“Station yourself in a destination location,” suggests Lynch. “People will tend to congregate at the registration table or the bar to wait for name tags and drinks, giving you the perfect opportunity to start a conversation,” she says.

Go to the people who are standing alone. “It’s much easier to break into a conversation with a solo person than with two or three people chatting merrily,” says Waagen.

“In a cold room—one where you have zero contacts—find someone who is doing what you are,” suggests Steve Lundin, chief hunter and gatherer at BIGfrontier Communications Group in Chicago. They might be drinking the same drink, standing and looking confused, eating the same dessert. “You already have one thing in common,” says Lundin.

“SHEE is the key,” says Taksh. That is: S–H–E–E–smile, handshake, eye contact and enthusiasm. The right amount of enthusiasm is important and sometimes challenging to gauge. “We have to calibrate and get feedback on our own personalities,” says Taksh. Someone who is low key may need to rev it up a bit. Someone who is naturally enthusiastic might need to tone it down. “The essence of networking is to authentically appeal to the widest variety of people,” he says.

Follow Up

Of course, it is not enough to simply make connections. To be successful networkers, HR consultants need to follow up with and nurture the contacts they make.

“If you’re not reminding your business friends of what you do and that you’re still out there doing it on a very regular basis, you might as well stop wasting your time and energy on business development,” says Ken Lizotte, CIO (Chief Imaginative Officer) of emerson consulting group and the author of The Expert’s Edge: Become the Go-To Authority People Turn to Every Time (McGraw Hill, 2007). “Networking without follow-up, and then without continued follow-up in the form of regular reminders, is opportunity unrealized,” he says.“Make a commitment to keeping your client community informed and reminded of what’s going on with you and your business,” Lizotte advises.

“I would follow up immediately by finding a way to stay in front of them that will provide reciprocal value,” says Taksh. This might be sending an article, providing them with information, referring them to a contact and the like. “Part of listening and looking for common ground should be discovering opportunities for follow-up,” he says.

Networking is a lot like physical fitness, says Taksh. “You don’t feel like it, but often times you do it and you’re most always glad you did,” he says.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.


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