Next time you see a presidential candidate—any presidential candidate—in the midst of a campaign, watch him work a room. Master politicians, it’s said by more than a few political pundits and strategists, know the art of “retail politics.”
Getting out and meeting with voters, making a connection with them, and leaving them with the sense that they’re the most important people in the world—that’s the stuff of both retail politics and networking for business. And if you’re good at it, there’s no telling how far you’ll go.
Here are a few tips for working a room, some more obvious than others, to help you quickly make a connection, develop rapport, and leave your audience feeling great about the encounter.
1. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. It’s as true a sentiment now as it was when Ice Cube first rapped those lyrics. Before you walk into a room, take a few breaths and make sure you’re bringing the right, positive energy into the situation, suggests an article on the University of California at Berkeley’s Career Center website.1 If you walk in with a bad attitude, chances are everyone else will pick up on it. That’s no way to make a good first impression.
2. Arrive early. This idea from a Forbes.com2 article is great. When you arrive early at a party, meeting, or event, the article says, you adopt a “host mentality” that is more nurturing and open. It’s also a good way to get more relaxed about interacting with others.2
3. Have a game plan. Most networking functions only last about an hour or so, and you want to make sure you’re covering as much ground as possible in the time available. Familiarize yourself with the list of attendees beforehand and even select a few and do quick Google searches on their names. The idea isn’t to stalk anyone or gain “intel” but if a few seconds of research shows you share a former employer or similar hobby, you’ve got an easy conversation starter. You also might not know what a person looks like, so finding a picture on a company website can be helpful for a quick ID.
4. Act natural, but not too natural. It doesn’t matter how good the egg rolls are—you’re not going to make a good impression with sweet-and-sour sauce on your chin. While you’re working a room, you need to be focused and comfortable. The best bet is to have a drink or cocktail in your left hand, keeping your right hand free and dry for shaking. You also want handy access to your business cards. If you’ve got a bunch of stuff in your hands or your cards are buried at the bottom of your bag, you’re going to flub around and either look like you’re disheveled or like you’re a total mess. Have everything ready to go so you can relax and focus on the conversation during the event.
5. What’s your conversation starter? Not so much a pickup line as a way to get a dialogue going is how you should think about your conversation starter. Some people like to wear their conversation starters. A large piece of jewelry can be a great way for people to notice and connect. Others like to stick with current events or even the weather. Often, a simple “What kind of work do you do?” will suffice. A networking event isn’t the time to draw a blank, so make sure you’ve got your best openers, one-liners, and interesting tidbits ready to go.