You don’t have to be very socially awkward to find horror in the average networking event.
People gravitate toward the familiar, so walking into a room of strangers can stimulate all your fight or flight responses.
People find the person they know – or the first person who talks to them – and they cling. Others hang around the food and drink, because they have an excuse not to talk if they are chewing.
It is even worse if you have walked into a room of people you don’t know, who all seem to know each other. If you try to make a break into conversation, they look at you like you’ve crashed their party.
It is tempting to find the loneliest introvert in the room. At least, they’ll be pleased to see a friendly face but that won’t be fun and it often doesn’t achieve your goal of meeting new people.
I’ve experimented with a few techniques. Being a journalist, I’m always walking into rooms of people who look at me with suspicion.
Name calling: One time, I had just written a story on remembering people’s names. At an event, I put what I had learned into practise, listening carefully when they were introduced, rather than letting the names just pass in one ear and out the other as usual.
I made associations between their names and what they looked like (red Ruth for the woman with auburn hair); I used their names frequently and then I was able to introduce them to each other which neatly taught me the “palming off” technique.
Moving on: One of the most painful moments in a social event is to be able to part from the person you just befriended. Far too often, you find someone who – like you – is relieved to find a friendly face, but you stay too long and conversation becomes awkward and you both look for the exit.
However, I’ve found that if you have been remembering people’s names, you can bring people together, grabbing a passer by with “John, have you met Belinda? She’s interested in underwater hydraulic engines, too”. Then, you give Belinda’s arm a squeeze as they make polite conversation and you move on.
Often, books advise that you offer to find drink or food for the person you’d like to get away from, but I find this tactic a little too obvious, especially if your companion is a little dull and everybody keeps loading up their plate.
Of course, if you are famous or powerful, you just need to shake the person’s hand and say it was lovely to meet them. Everybody expects those people to be busy.
Name faux pas: What do you do if you have called someone by the wrong name? As soon as you realise, go back to them and find a reason to use the right name. In that way, they might actually think that they misheard you the first time. Or that you had a moment of temporary insanity.
If you have forgotten the name of the person in front of you, and you have actually known them for a long time, embarrassment looms. Peering at a name tag could be a bad look, especially if your companion is a woman, seeing as the names are mostly pinned on breasts. I find that if I draw a third person into the conversation and act a little absent-minded, they will introduce themselves and you’ll catch the name. Sometimes, you can ask for their phone number and ask how they spell their name. However, with a name like Fiona Smith, I always catch people out if they use that one with me.
Have a goal: At one Christmas function, when I realised I no longer knew many of the people I worked with, I got hold of the telephone list and highlighted all the people I didn’t know. Then I challenged a colleague to vie with me in meeting as many of them as we could in one night. That worked.
A variation is to find out who is going to the function and make a list of the people you most want to get to know. Or you could look around the room, find the group of people who seem to be having the most fun and break into their circle. However, you must remember the law of social groupings . . .
Four is enough: according to evolutionary psychologists, people will comfortably congregate in groups of no more than four. Once a group extends to five, they will split into two groups.
If you ignore that rule, and try to break into a group of four, don’t be surprised when half of them turn their backs on you.
Be curious: The advantage of being a journalist is that I am expected to ask a lot of questions. When silence descends, find something to ask questions about.
People generally love talking about their own interests and, even if your find their passions a real turn off, you can keep the conversation going with questions until you can apply the palming off technique once more.
Lone wolf: If you are serious about networking, don’t talk to people you know, deliberately sit next to someone you’ve never met before.
And don’t hang about in groups. It is a bit like the dating game. People won’t approach you if they see you are already in company.