How to Navigate a Roomful of Strangers in Five Easy Steps

NOTE: After attending our jillionth networking event last night, we thought we’d repost some tips we’ve learned over the years.

Whether success for you means leaving a networking event with several new business contacts — or just leaving with your dignity intact — here are a few basic steps to get you started. And while these steps are geared toward networking, feel free to use them at any awkward social gathering.

Step One: Show up late.

If you equate “networking event” with “business meeting,” you’re approaching it with the wrong mind-set. It’s more like a party — yes, even if your boss makes you go. And like parties, networking events are less intimidating if the guests have had at least one drink. Plan your arrival accordingly.

Step Two: Scope out the scene.

Says a Hollywood friend of mine, “Don’t make a move until you’ve circled your prey.” Translation for non-A-listers? Don’t feel pressure to jump into a conversation right away. Instead, take a slow walk around the perimeter of the room to scope out the scene. This allows you to get your bearings and see who’s there. End this circling at the bar so your wandering appears purposeful, rather than just crazy.

Step Three: Get a drink.

It doesn’t have to be an alcohol. But if it is, remember that in business, nothing good happens after 10 p.m. or three drinks. (I can’t credit this sage piece of advice, because I can’t remember who said it. Probably because I’d had more than three drinks.)

Step Four: Say something, anything!

The bad news: Networking events will bring out the insecure 13-year-old in you. The good news: in you … and everyone else. This means people — especially people standing alone — will be so grateful you’re saving them from “standing around like a loser with no friends” that you could talk about the weather and have a rapt audience.

Step Five: Leave them wanting more.

Handle yourself like you would (or should) on a first date. This means keeping things light and fun. Your goal is just to get to know a person, not sell her on a fruitful, long-term commitment. And don’t cling — even great conversations shouldn’t last more than about 10 minutes. If there is mutual interest, you can always see each other again.

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