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How To Work a Room and Other Secrets of Savvy Networking

From quiet to quite a mingling maven

A group of business people talking in an office.

“I was always quiet and often felt shy at events, meetings and even parties,” said Rosa Baez-Lopez, long-time member of the Society for Human Resource Management and vice president of HR at Clearbrook, a Chicago-area social services agency.

“I started as the receptionist for another agency and was working with Carl LaMell, the new bookkeeper, who always encouraged me. At community events and fundraisers, I’d watch him approach, greet and talk to all people regardless of their titles. He was a mentor, a teacher and, most importantly, an amazing role model. I adapted his style and ways of working a room by being friendly, respectful and open. Because he always had a smile on his face and laughed as he talked to people, he always looked like he was having fun!

“By the time he was named CEO, I was no longer the ‘quiet, sometimes shy Rosa.’ ”

While Baez-Lopez skills help the nearly 1,000 employees who serve the 7,000 special needs clients in more than 100 Chicago-area communities, her ability and comfort in working a room (mingling, if you will) has been invaluable to her career. “That ability or skill has served me well as my career grew from receptionist to personnel manager to today as VP of human resources. In fact, it’s been helpful in my personal life as well!”

According to social science research on shyness, about 90 percent of American adults self-identify as shy and about 40 percent of us claim to be introverts. And that’s across boardrooms, classrooms, associations and professions. That means that most of the people you’ll meet at any conference, party or meeting will also feel uncomfortable. So if you do, you are definitely not alone!

Working a Room Is Not Networking

Many people mistakenly dub the process of socializing in business (or mingling) as networking. Because they’re uncomfortable at the prospect of talking to people they don’t know, they denigrate such gatherings as networking, thereby potentially missing the opportunity to meet, converse and connect with a variety of people.

Here’s the proof that they are different skills: There are people in our professional lives—and our personal lives—who are wonderful, even natural, networkers. They follow up, share leads, give job referrals, offer advice and ideas, introduce us to others, call when they say they will, and do what they say they’ll do. But the thought of walking into a roomful of people, especially people they don’t know, is daunting!

On the other hand, there are people who are fabulous socializers but just don’t—or won’t—connect, follow up or stay in touch. They may know how to work a room but they are lousy networkers. We benefit both personally and professionally from having both skills.

Liza Fawcett, human resource and talent management director of the American Payroll Association, headquartered in San Antonio, learned how to work a room “as a means to connect with other like-minded professionals.” For Fawcett, the fact that she is truly interested in other people helps her establish common ground. “Being able to interact with my colleagues and other HR professionals has broadened my body of knowledge that benefits my employers and the association’s employees.”

Fawcett also finds that attending every event with the intent to connect and converse with old and new contacts has helped her career. “Because of the colleagues I’ve met at SHRM, I can pick up a phone or send an e-mail about a perplexing issue and colleagues respond with ideas and helpful solutions. Each time there’s a problem or a situation comes up, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” And Fawcett, in turn, is a source and resource for others.

The Gift of In-Person Connection

Something special occurs when we’re face to face with other people—whether it's in a meeting room, in the hotel lobby at a SHRM conference, a local event, at a baseball game, or at a neighbor's barbecue or birthday party. Every one of us has a story of something unplanned that happened because we sent in a RSVP and then showed up. Some call that serendipity. In New Orleans, it’s called lagniappe—that something extra that is the result—or even a reward—of being present, such as meeting someone we otherwise wouldn't have met.

Mark Shambo was the marketing director of a Chicago accounting firm when he was conducting training for accountants on his team. The team spent hours and many company dollars going to events, only to return with nothing of significance to show for the investment of time and money.  “They needed to learn how to work a room,” Shambo said.  He searched on the Internet and found my book, How to Work a Room: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lasting Connections—In Person and Online (HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), and then attended my presentation in Chicago. 

“At the presentation I met someone who introduced me to someone else who introduced me to a CFO networking club and that has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue,” Shambo said. “The relationships I’ve forged with other members are strong, have stood the test of time, and have been professionally and personally rewarding.”


Sidebar: How to Face Getting Face To Face

How can we make the most of both small and large group situations? Much like the answer to the classic question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Practice, practice, practice.

Have a Game Plan to Work Any Room:

  • Do due diligence and prepare. Check out websites, Google or industry blogs for information about the event you’re attending, as well as the names of sponsors, speakers, members and attendees.
  • Prepare a seven- to nine-second self-introduction that is an engaging pleasantry and link it to the event at hand. It gives others context for your presence.
  • Read the news, whether online or in print. Include both local and national coverage as well as industry and trade journals so that you can be knowledgeable and conversant.
  • Prepare three to five topics for conversation in case you get stuck for subjects of interest.
  • Embrace small talk as a way to get to know people and start a conversation. Listen intently rather than thinking of what to say next.
  • Leave your smartphone, earbuds, and other gizmos and gadgets out of sight.
  • Give people something to talk about: a pin, a fun/interesting tie, a scarf or hat.
  • Bring your best manners with you to every event.
  • Approach those who are alone, or approach groups of three or more who sound and look like they are having a good time.
  • Exit conversations graciously. “It’s been so interesting talking to you about … (fill in a phrase that shows you were listening).” Excuse yourself and walk a quarter of the room away to a group or person standing alone. Another option: bring the person with you to meet another attendee.
  • Be a good host who is warm, welcoming, interested and who introduces people to each other.
  • Go everywhere with the intent of having a good time … and you will!


What Do Leaders Do That Is Not Notable?

In the 25th anniversary edition of How to Work a Room, there’s a quote from an article in Fortune stating that "high-profile leaders know how to work a room"—so should we all.

Here’s how:

  • Extend yourself. According to David Schwartz, Ph.D., in the classic The Magic of Thinking Big (Fireside 1987), “leaders lean into conversations and extend their hand for a handshake.” By doing so, they welcome and include others. And they set the tone for the event, the company or the conference.
  • Be approachable. They make themselves approachable like Woody Morcott did when he was CEO of Dana Corporation, a $7 billion company. At a reception attended by his division presidents, vice presidents and their spouses, Woody wore a Looney Tunes tie. When asked about his unusual choice, he explained, “It’s precisely because I’m CEO of a $7 billion multinational corporation that I wear this fun tie. I want my senior executives and their spouses to feel comfortable approaching me. And this tie will do that.” 
  • Give people something to talk about. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has a dazzling collection of brooches and always wears one so that she gives people—many of whom are heads of state—something to talk about and allows them to feel they’ve started the conversation.
  • Use your outer appearance to your advantage. Whether it’s a tie, a pin, a scarf or a big smile, wearing something of interest makes us approachable.
  • Be inclusive. Leaders (and Mingling Mavens®) also include the spouses and guests (and children) of their employees and colleagues in conversations. It’s surprising how many people say they have been virtually ignored at events that they attended as a spouse or guest. It’s a foolish mistake that can be easily avoided. 

Be a Host: Make Others Comfortable

One way we can make ourselves comfortable in any face-to-face situation may seem counterintuitive: Refocus on making others comfortable with you. It works. It’s what HR professionals do at every meeting, SHRM event or company training session. Being gracious and welcoming in any situation is a transferable skill.

Adele Scheele, Ph.D., Los Angeles-based career strategist, Huffington Post contributor and author of the classic best-seller Skills for Success (Ballantine Press, 1987), suggests that at meetings, parties, conferences or events, we always "act like a host." Hosts make others feel welcome and comfortable by approaching and greeting them with a few pleasantries. People respond in kind and then conversation flows. Hosts also introduce people to each other even if they’ve just met them. They give enough information to spark interest and use a tone that is enthusiastic so that we want to continue the conversation. Why are those conversations so important? “Because everything good in life begins with talking with each other one to one," wrote Daniel Pink, in his New York Times best-seller To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (Riverhead Books, 2012). His premise: we are all “selling” even if our job is not in sales.

The Dining Dilemma

When the event is a luncheon or dinner set with round tables of eight to 10 people, Fawcett and Baez-Lopez each have a plan to manage the situation. Because Fawcett is committed to meeting and getting to know new people, she finds a table with people she doesn’t know and joins them. “That’s an easy way to expand my knowledge and my contacts.”

Because of the nature of a social service agency, Baez-Lopez often finds herself sitting with supporters, partners and donors.

“I make sure I direct conversation to each and every person at my table. I also act as an unofficial table host and always suggest that we go around the table and introduce ourselves. That gives people information and sets the tone for conversation. My table companions appreciate the opportunity to meet everyone at the table.”

Remember This: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance

The easiest way to mingle—and benefit from working a room—is to be prepared:

Plan a conversational self-introduction. Knowing how we’re going to introduce ourselves in a business or social gathering abates some of the stress. You need a pleasantry that is seven to nine seconds long and keyed to the event so that you give others a context for your attendance. That will help them converse with you.

Instead of giving your job title, Patricia Fripp, an executive speech coach based in San Francisco and Las Vegas, suggests that you briefly explain the benefit of what you do. That invites the other person to ask the first question and feel that he or she started the exchange.

Baez-Lopez finds it’s easier to meet someone who’s standing alone rather than approach two people. The “stand alones” often are more receptive because being by yourself in a crowd is often uncomfortable.

Think of three to five conversation starters and topics. The newspapers, news websites and industry blogs are full of interesting items worthy of a conversation. It could be an item about weather, sports, entertainment, science and technology, the newest government regulation, the best new sushi restaurant, or the most helpful app for nearby parking. Start with small talk; it’s the warm-up act for “big talk.”

Have an attitude alteration. Go everywhere with this thought: “I’m going to meet interesting people, make great contacts and have a good time in the process.” And you will!

HR professionals serve and take care of others in myriad ways. Meeting and connecting with people—both within the field and in other professions—builds extraordinary networks for both your professional and personal life and is a well-deserved contribution to your career in human resources.

Susan RoAne is a convention speaker who has presented for SHRM, as well as Fortune 20-500 companies, and associations and universities worldwide.  Her presentations set the tone for interaction, communication and connection as she gets her audiences up on their feet, meeting, mingling and conversing. She is the author of the best-seller How to Work a Room: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lasting Connections—in Person and Online (HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), as well as FACE TO FACE: How to Reclaim the Personal Touch in a Digital World (Touchstone, 2008), and The Secrets of Savvy Networking (Grand Central Publishing, 1993). She can be reached at


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