How to Work a Room

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Posted by The Editors on May 6, 2011
How to Work a Room
We tagged along with Diane Darling, expert networker and author of The Networking Survival Guide, to observe her as she demonstrates the art of the schmooze. To show off her skills, Darling touched down at a business-and-technology conference at the Museum of Science in Boston. The attendees, a mix of about 750 entrepreneurs, techies, and venture capitalists, have come to scout clients, money, and jobs. Diane Darling is hunting clients. If there’s such thing as a professional networker, it’s her. As the conference begins, she straightens her name tag, pops an Altoid, and strides into the crowd.

1. Don’t go in cold

A week before the event, Darling asked one of the sponsors for a list of attendees. “That way I could do a little research on people I want to meet and use that information to break the ice with them,” she explains. “Are these people entrepreneurs? CEOs? VCs? I try to know as much as I can about the crowd before going.”

2. Travel light
Darling wears a tasteful red jacket. “There are a bazillion blue suits here. I stand out in this jacket—but not in a bad way.” She carries only a leather portfolio, about twice the size of a wallet, with two pockets: one for business cards coming in, the other for cards going out. No fumbling.

3. Walk the walk
She moves through the concourse confidently, smiling. “Young people tend to act like beggars when they schmooze for jobs. But that sends the wrong signal. Powerful people come to these events because they want to meet other skilled, talented people. So carry yourself accordingly. Don’t fold your arms. Look like you're having a good time.”

4. Start with breakfast
Darling’s first stop is the long breakfast buffet—but not because she’s hungry. “People tend to be very accessible around the food. Talking and eating go together. It’s a great way to get started at an event,” she says, carrying her orange juice in her left hand so she can shake with her right.

5. Who’s who

To scope out the crowd and pick her targets from the hundreds of attendees, Darling circles the large room once, quickly scanning name tags. “Don’t read name tags while talking to people. Always maintain eye contact.” Besides, sideways glances make you look furtive and shifty.

6. Approach VIPs first

Darling darts over to one of the morning’s guest speakers, a Harvard Business School professor, 15 minutes before his presentation starts. “Keynote speakers love to talk and can be great contacts, but after they give their speeches they’re always swamped.”

7. Spot the lone wolves

The room is crowded, so Darling next looks for people who are standing alone. “It’s harder to integrate into a group. Besides, individual contact is best; one-on-one makes for the most effective networking. Just make sure you smile as you approach.”

8. “And you are?”
She approaches a man near the podium and very briefly tells him why she’s at the conference. “Hi. I’m here because I founded Effective Networking. We train people how to build their businesses and careers,” she says. “My name is Diane Darling.” She says her name at the end so he’s more likely to remember it.

9. Press the flesh

When meeting others, she’s the first to extend her hand. “It’s an old protocol, a sign that you’re eager to interact,” she says later. Also, make sure to shake hands good-bye, especially if you’re a woman. “It’s not as natural a part of a woman’s repertoire as it is of a man’s, so a goodbye handshake will be memorable.”

10. Feel ’em out

While talking with strangers, Darling asks open-ended questions to determine quickly whether they’ll be of any help. “Don’t go into a polished 20-second commercial about yourself. Real leaders are curious. You’re trying to pass the test as a personable human being first and as a talented job candidate second.”

11. Get an intro

After traversing the room twice, she spots the conference moderator, a player in the Boston media world. He’s alone drinking coffee, but rather than approach him solo, she enlists a mutual acquaintance to give her an introduction. “An intro is like an implicit endorsement, and the next time we meet, there will be that association and that context.”

12. Give and take

The moderator mentions that he’s looking to get in touch with a professor at MIT whom Darling happens to know. She offers to make an introduction. “Always try to be a connector, the person who brings people together,” she says. This not only makes Darling look tapped in but may also make the moderator want to return her favor.

13. Card exchange

Darling asks everyone she meets for a business card before she offers her own. “It’s less presumptuous.”

14. That’s a wrap

After three hours, Darling has talked with around two dozen new contacts. She leaves the conference with plans to email these leads in the next week. “Remember, you’re not there to close deals or get a job. You’re there to get the right to follow up with an email or arrange a meeting over coffee. Even one contact like that makes the whole day worthwhile.”

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