meeting people is easy
November 8, 2012 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Please help me improve my informal networking skills

I'm in an industry dominated by type A extroverts and networking is extremely important. There are a few specific things I need to work on. First, I really need to improve my ability to introduce myself to leaders in my organization. How can I approach them and introduce myself in a way that is natural?

If I'm at a dinner or meeting, I can chat for hours with no problem. But for some reason, informal events and happy hours with unstructured standing around and chatting leave me feeling anxious, whether I know people in the room or not. It is a little easier for me to interact with people who are around my level, but still challenging.

A few examples, what would be a good way to introduce myself at a happy hour with a senior executive that I would like to meet? What if I am at an event where I know a lot of people but not well, and I arrive late and everyone has separated into groups? How could I walk into a happy hour where I might not know anyone and start a conversation?

PS I scanned previous questions because this seems like a very common issue, but it looked like most were targeted to networking to help in a job search. Please redirect me if I have missed something obvious.
posted by seesom to Work & Money (4 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Re meeting leaders:

I don't care who anyone is, as far as class/social standing goes. This is a two-edged sword. Some bigwigs find it disrespectful and offensive and it sometimes made me serious enemies. Others were thrilled to be treated like a human being and found me very charming. Since you don't know which is which ahead of time, I don't think just being chatty and sociable works all that well with these folks.

What did seem to work well at my own job to make a positive impression on the leadership:

1) Show up at optional events that few people attend but the bigwigs are required to attend. Be sociable there, when they are feeling trapped, bored, and rejected by so few people showing up. Even some of the bigwigs I had so annoyed and offended appreciated this.

2) If I was working late in the day on a Friday afternoon and most of middle management had disappeared already and something urgent/high priority came up that required approval, I would wander around the department looking for whatever higher-up I could find to try to get it resolved (or at least taken to the next step) before I left for the day. It just so happened that sometimes department heads and other serious higher-ups were the only people available at that hour (especially before, say, a holiday weekend) to give me approval/info/whatever.

In short, if I was legitimately trying to provide good customer service and make the company look good and/or keep them in compliance at a time when it was difficult to accomplish that, sometimes just doing my job properly and not dropping the ball allowed me to buttonhole an important person and look good doing it. I happened to frequently be in the office late-ish on Fridays when a LOT of people left early and that is usually when I had some urgent matter and just had to talk to, say, the second VP because my boss and her boss were both gone. It wasn't intentional on my part, but if I had been trying to climb the corporate ladder, I think I would have made it a personal policy to be there at such times after noticing the pattern that I often ended up working with important people at such times on resolving thorny issues before they could get worse.
posted by Michele in California at 3:32 PM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

God - yes! I have this problem too, and I'm generally a pretty friendly, chatty, confident person. Mainly, will someone please answer the question what do you do when you walk into a room and everyone is already separated into small groups (talking to people they seemingly know)?
posted by jrichards at 9:26 AM on November 9, 2012

In an informal setting, you need to find some small talk material as an interlude between your introduction and your potential "serious" discussion.

A common strategy is to get your interlocutor to talk about their interest. It can be work related if you know they have a pet project, but I prefer non work related subjects. That way, you don’t appear to be brown nosing and everyone like to talk about their passion.

If you find the right subject, your interlocutor will be interested in talking to you and might even end up doing all the talking for you! Just show signs of interest, like an occasional nod and a quick laugh to keep the conversation flowing. Obviously, this is easier if you are genuinely interested in the conversation.

Finding interesting small talk subject for executives should be easy. Take a walk in front of their office and look for signs that might betray an interest. A golf trophy, a picture of their hunting trip, is that a boating calendar on the wall?

Of course, all of this needs practice, but if you are already comfortable talking to other people in different settings, not much practice should be needed.

Finally, you might be intimidated by senior execs, but in most industries, these guys are just regular people who started low on the corporate ladder and worked their ass off to the top. They are not rock stars; they are generally surprisingly down to earth and easily approachable.

Good luck!
posted by racingjs at 12:45 PM on November 9, 2012

If people are already separated into groups, instead of trying to make a good impression, you need to start with the goal of not making a spectacularly bad impression. You need to try to catch someone's eye, see if they will give you a little wave or something. Go stand next to them, maybe quietly say "hi". Be brief. Don't launch into "life of the party mode" and try to take over conversation.

Your goal is to get social approval for just physically joining the group and standing there with them without everyone glaring at you like an uninvited, unwelcome interloper. If that goes well, there may or may not be opportunities later to make a good impression. In the short run, avoiding the bad impression tends to not feel like much of an accomplishment. In the long run, it is much better to not have to live down the bad impression and you may be surprised at a later date by who did notice that you handled an awkward situation with aplomb.

(I am queen of being glared at like an unwelcome interloper. Trust me: You don't want that. Yes, I theoretically "know better". Theory and practice can be difficult dance partners sometimes. I am still working on the "in practice" part.)
posted by Michele in California at 1:17 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

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