You approach the door. You are feeling anxious as you enter a room full of strangers. Your heart beats faster and your palms get clammy. Even the most confident and social of professionals get a little nervous. But with a bit of preparation—along with some expert coaching—you can navigate a room with confidence and ease.
Whether cocktails with clients or a cousin’s wedding, making conversation creates potential. While some people appear adept at casual chitchat, the truth is 93 percent of us self-identify as shy, says Susan RoAne, known as The Mingling Maven® and best-selling author of How to Work a Room. The key is advance preparation.
“Read the paper, find out what’s going on in your community, business world, real world, because then you will feel more prepared to make conversation. Have a self-intro, but a pleasantry, not an elevator speech,” RoAne says.
When entering a setting where most of the room is full of strangers, where should you head first?
“There are people who say head to the middle, but I say look to the periphery. They’re easy to approach. They could be just one of the 93 percent who self-identify as shy who are more uncomfortable than you,” RoAne says.
“Stand in the periphery, do agreeable body language, and when someone includes you visually or verbally, step in. When you’re invited, give a bit about yourself. A savvy mingler stops and adds the magic words, ‘And what about you?’ and then you’re in a conversation,” RoAne says.
When people don’t immediately turn your way, you can hover and make light of it. “When there is a break, say ‘Excuse me, may I join you?’ It is very elegant. Never has anybody said no,” she says.
“Invariably, when you say it politely with a smile on your face, someone will step back and include you. But you don’t change it to your agenda or your pitch.”
If you get stuck on the periphery, RoAne suggests moving to another group if you are not included after a few minutes.
“You will hear people say, ‘Just ask a lot of questions.’ Don’t you dare do that. You don’t want to seem like the FBI. Conversation is a mix,” she says.
Debra Fine, a Denver-based former engineer turned keynote speaker, trainer and author of the new book The Fine Art of Small Talk says the more interesting you can be, the more unforgettable you become.
In a professional network setting, what information about yourself should you try to work into a conversation with someone new?
“I play the conversation game whenever I can,” Fine says. “If someone asks ‘How are you?’ I might answer with: ‘I am doing great. We went on a bike trip in Spain this year that was quite an adventure.’ Another response might be: ‘I have been good, just fi nished a promotion for my latest book.’ Both responses engage people, and in the case of my bike trip, makes me more of a three-dimensional person rather than a speaker or author.
“Mentioning my book is fi ne as long as I do not go on and on about it. What is most important is I give people something to talk about with me, not necessarily with an agenda in mind, but with the goal of connecting and having a lively conversation,” she says.
Fine says the goal is to have a conversation similar to a tennis volley rather than a batting cage. “A great positive impression is the goal. It is always in the follow-up that a relationship is built,” she says.
Tony Jeary, a business coach, presentation expert and author of 14 books on the topic, suggests thinking of every meeting as a presentation and an opportunity to show your best. Are there tips for disarming people and putting them at ease when approaching someone new in a business networking setting?
“One of the things that allows people to be at ease and better at sharing is giving people breathing spaces. Facilitate with an intro and then give them a moment to think about what they should say,” Jeary says.
After leading off with an introduction, make a connection. “What is really cool is if you can think about the common interests and link the dots. Not just what do you do, but what you both do—you both write books, do ministry work, etc. Help set up others to be comfortable with others,” Jeary says.