Conversation...is the art of never appearing a bore, of knowing how to say everything interestingly, to entertain no matter what, to be charming with nothing at all.
—Guy de Maupassant, French author
Politicians call them meet and greets. Organizations may call them mixers. Singles call them parties. Bottom line, it's you in a room full of people you don't yet know, perhaps with name tags, and the expectation that you will emerge with votes, business cards, or phone numbers.
All too often, we are thrown back to our experiences as gawky preteens and the days of cotillion where we were expected to be charming to whichever was the opposite sex! Horrors.
But now with a clearly defined purpose for networking, perhaps a quota, you may actually enjoy the process. On some level, you know that there is gold in them there hills, or potential clients or dates in them there cliques. It's just figuring out how to prospect for them and mine the gold.
My young associate happened on a technique that serves her very well. Being new to the public relations industry, she can't just walk into a professional gathering like a veteran can and expect conversations to stop so old friends can greet her. She doesn't have any friends yet and always seemed to be on the outside looking in.
Instinctively feeling more comfortable being early than late, she has started arriving when the hosts were setting up and became a greeter as people arrived. This way, she can meet people more or less, one-on-one, make introductions, and the cliques form around her.
This is a great approach, too, for the veteran who doesn't know anyone anymore because "only the newbies go to those things!" But when you are supposed to be the rainmaker and there's not a cloud in sight, go early and graciously greet the literal newcomers. If you are as well known in your industry as you think you are, you will be treated respectfully, as a legend in their midst.
According to the French and many other cultures, Americans have a bad habit of mixing business with everything. In the more refined cultures of the world, business is not appropriate social conversation. Think of nonbusiness topics of discussion such as travel or the arts. To be a well-rounded conversationalist, read up on subjects of interest to you or experience them firsthand. Always remember that you get one point for sharing your own topics of conversation and twice as many for your genuine interest in someone else's.
Stephen Clouse, an on-camera communications coach based in Washington, D.C., recommends observing and then emulating the image of coaches at the end of a sporting contest. The losing coach almost always slouches, head bent over, and eyes looking downward. However, the winning coach stands straight with shoulders back and chin up. He visually communicates the role of a winner and it carries over into gestures and even the smile on his face. He is in awe of the brilliance of his players and humbled at his own good fortune — all is right with the world. "Always be the winning coach on camera and in person," Clouse tells his congressional clients. "That's the type of individual people like to vote for. Ronald Reagan didn't become one of our nation's most likeable presidents by accident, he worked at it."
In connecting with an audience, the issue is almost never your knowledge but your likeability. In her book, How To Work a Room (HarperResource, 2000), Susan RoAne lists what she calls the Top 10 minglers when meeting new people. Her list is also an excellent "likeability primer." Here are her Top 10:
Although slightly more than half of your audience connection is made visually, according to Clouse, a whopping 38 percent comes from your vocal quality and delivery.
"It is when you open your mouth that your intellect is judged, Clouse continued. "Governor Bill Clinton spent six months of voice coaching neutralizing his Southern drawl to become a more desirable presidential candidate."
A specific tip Clouse offers is to slow down your rate of speech by elongating the vowels (a, e, i, o, u) for warmth and emotional context. Try extending the vowels with almost any phrase and you will hear the difference immediately.
Another good use of vowels is Mr. Clouse's EO exercise to relax the tension in your face and give you a winning smile. Say the letters E and O out loud, alternately, working your facial muscles. "Of the 19 kinds of smiles including curt and pursed-lip smile, the kind that crinkles the corners of your eyes is the hands-down favorite for showing sincerity. In fact, it will generate an added gift, because it triggers a pleasure center in the brain that causes the receiver to smile back."
Asking for cards is the closing ceremonies when working a room in the United States and often is a great way to close one conversation and move on to the next.
When you have finished a networking conversation, don't just present your card, even though you may have a box of 5,000 back at the office! Instead, ask for the card of anyone you would like to follow up with or even add to your "Christmas card" list, which is usually a more welcome prospect than going onto your mailing list. Then, stay in touch with them by e-mail, phone, or your next promotional or holiday mailing. As we say in sales, the last you've heard from is usually the first one you think of.