Tips for graceful networking, mixing and mingling

"Networking isn’t my strength," my colleague confided. "I show up and look at the crowd and wonder how to break into little cliques. Or, if I do end up connecting to someone, I don’t know how to break away."

Many people don’t know how to work a room. Here are some tips that will help you make the most of your next networking experience:

Before you go, decide if there is something you want to accomplish. For instance, occasionally I will go to a networking event with a question in mind. In addition to enjoying the socializing, I am also working on my agenda item. By the time the event is through, I often have the answer to my question or I’ve conducted a mini focus group, without anyone ever knowing about it. In fact, people enjoy helping you out when you tell them you’d like their opinion.

Try out material before you use it on your real audience. If you are in sales or do any kind of public speaking in your job, a networking event is great place to test the waters with a story or case study. Jeannie Robertson, one of my favorite humorists, makes it a point to try out new stories in social settings before using it on an audience.

Keep up to date on local business news so you can strike up conversations (or at least not ask too many ignorant questions) when you are meeting people from different industries.

Plan in advance to seek out a few people who might attend. If I know who the members are, I will make a mental note to look for a few people I know who always seem to be doing interesting things. Often, it’s the only time I run into these creative folks.

If I am in a room with strangers, I might ask the host or event planner, "Say, I’m interested in talking to someone who is doing some work in the area of X. Can you point me toward someone? I don’t know many people here." Usually, the person is only too happy to comply.

Learn how to enter a conversation in progress. Look for the widest separation between people and stand close to that gap. The members of the group will naturally open the gap to include you. Listen as the person finishes their story and join in as the conversation moves around the group. Be quick to introduce yourself, if they don’t offer first.

Do more listening than talking. Remember to ask a lot of follow up questions to draw out the person who is speaking. Long ago I realized that the best conversationalists were the people who got everyone else talking about him or herself.

When you are with someone don’t let your eyes wander to others in the room while they are talking. It conveys that you aren’t interested in what the person has to say and would rather move on.

A skillful networker listens to the needs and interests of the person they are talking with and then find others in the room who share that person’s interests. They point out people to meet and explain why that person is a good contact for them. They might even walk the person across the room to make an introduction, "Jerry, I want you to meet Jim. He’s just starting up his business and he’s looking for some marketing advice. When you started your business I know you tried some creative marketing ideas. I thought you might be willing to share some of your experiences with him." As they begin to talk you can either stay to listen or move off to talk with someone new.

And speaking of moving on, don’t stay with one person too long. Ten minutes is about right. As soon as you start feeling like you want to make a break, wait for a natural lull in the conversation and then say, "I know you want to mingle with the rest of the guests…(and before they have a chance to answer)…It was so nice to talk with you. I hope our paths cross again."

If they offer their card, take it and look at it. Don’t simply throw it in a pocket or purse. If they seemed interested in your business or you, offer your card as well. If there is something you promise to do for the person, write it down on their card immediately, so you don’t forget.

If you do something for someone don’t expect that they will "owe you one." It simply doesn’t work that way. Over time it all works out in the wash, and you will end up getting your share of paybacks. It’s all about paying it forward.

Be sensitive about the etiquette of referrals. Don’t assume that you are automatically in someone’s network if they spend some time with you or mention a few of their contacts. For instance, I haven’t been pleased when, on occasion, someone I met briefly at a networking event, referred to me as a more personal friend, in order to get through to someone else in my network.

Be sure to follow up with a call or a note if someone does give you a lead or some information that proves helpful. In the graceful dance of mixing and meeting new people, the personal touch of a thank you will be remembered.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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