When a trainee solicitor is asked to represent their firm at a business event it’s generally one very scary experience. It’s not just frightening for them: from our vast experience 99 per cent of professionals, including senior partners, find walking into a room somewhat daunting. One fear we all have is the fear of the unknown. This need not be the case any more – as every room never has any more than six formats. Here’s our guide on how to approach anyone at a networking event.
1. The single person
This person stands by the wall because they know no-one and don’t know how to break the ice. Approach them slowly as they’re literally praying for someone to talk to. Below is your ice-breaker. Smile, shake hands firmly but not too firmly and have good eye contact. Exchange names and listen carefully for their name that way you’ll hear it. What next? Think what you have in common and start asking questions.
2 & 3. Couples
As you’re surveying the room, you will see couples. They will either be standing side by side or face to face.
Unless you know one or both of them, do not go up to a couple standing face-to-face. This should apply if you’re approaching solo or with a mate. Their body language is telling you that they are having a private and confidential, even intimate, conversation. It might be business or social – who knows? What they have done is put an invisible barrier around themselves and asked everyone else to keep out. Don’t go there, it’s enemy territory.
If you spend a little time before going up to a couple, your natural senses will tell you whether it’s safe or not. Even if they are having a contretemps, it’s unlikely they are going to be rude to you, but why take the chance?
There are only three types of situations with couples:
- You know both of them
- You know one of them
- You know neither of them
Knowing both of them is the easy one, but even then, you’ve got to be polite and ask permission to join them.
When you know one of them, you are obviously going to approach that person and again, ask: Please may I join you? If you only know one, then watch the body language before moving forward. When you’ve approached them, the chances are the person you know will introduce you to the person you don’t know. If they don’t, there is only one reason for it. They’ve forgotten the person’s name. Friends help friends and when you pick up on the fact that an introduction isn’t forthcoming, simply introduce yourself. What a big favour you’ve done for your friend – extricating them from this highly embarrassing situation.
It happens often that people come up to a group when someone is talking and rudely interrupt. They don’t know the speaker but know the person they are talking to – and completely ignore the second person. Are they invisible? Don’t they deserve at least a nod? At every moment take into account: we are all being judged. Long after we forget what others said or did to us, we will still remember how other people made us feel.
When you know neither of them, approach slowly catch someone’s eye and ask if you can join them (see below for more about how to overcome your fear). They generally introduce themselves, and it’s best to let them take the lead as you have moved into their space. At the appropriate moment, consider asking: ‘How do you know each other?’ They may have just met, or been in business for 25 years or are friends who play sport together. That will move the conversation to a new area and you’re showing interest in both people simultaneously.
As an observer, you will now know when it’s safe to approach two people. When you’re in the position of being one of them, you can control the situation by deciding whether or not to close the circle. It’s not good to go up to people standing face-to-face, so if you want to spend a little time with your new-found contact, then create the scenario to ensure you are not interrupted. Don’t underestimate the power of body language. A lot of what is being said will be natural to everyone but on the other hand, don’t forget, if you want people to come and interrupt you, or catch someone’s eye, then stand shoulder to shoulder in a V shape.
4 & 5. Threesomes
When you see groups of three, they stand in an open or closed format.
The former will be standing in a square formation, with one side of the square missing. In other words, one person will have the other two people standing at right angles and there will be a space opposite the central figure. The next time you go to an event, have a look. See that space as yours; your opportunity to break in. You will be aiming for the person who is in the middle of a conversation as it is that person you will be interrupting.
Using eye contact with all three in the group, gently and quietly ask if you may join them. 999 times out of 1,000 their body language becomes open and they’ll welcome you in. You’ll get a responding smile, Of course, come in, and one or all of them will immediately introduce themselves. What often happens is that you will get chatting with one of the three, the other two will probably carry on their conversation and two new groups will be formed.
So, which groups shouldn’t you go into? The ones where there is no gap. Instead of there being a square, there’s a triangle, where each member of the group is standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Like the discussion on couples, they’ve closed the circle, or in this case, turned the unfinished square into a triangle. They are having an intimate conversation and don’t want you in there. Don’t feel bad about this, it’s not just you they don’t want in there, it’s everyone else at that point; unless you know someone.
Groups of four or more are the big challenge for most people – whether it’s the approaching, the entering or the leaving. Until you’ve got your L plates off, don’t start approaching groups, particularly when you don’t know anyone. Needless to say, it’s not so bad when there is at least one member of the group whom you know but even then it can be a bit daunting.
The group to approach is the one you feel most comfortable with. Firstly, aim for groups of three; groups of four or more, even for me, are a big challenge. Sticking with this group of three, decide whether you are more comfortable with males, females or a mix.
As a general rule, the easiest type of group to engage with is one with a mix of men and women. If you find talking to your own gender easier then do that and it’s best to aim to talk to people of your own age. After all, they are the people who you will be networking with for many years to come.