While holiday parties and get-togethers are a perfect time to network, many people feel self-conscious about meeting strangers.
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But if you own a small business, you need to mingle and introduce yourself—and bring business cards with you—at every party you attend. You never know if the man next to you at the shrimp bowl or the woman behind you at the bar might be in the market for your products or skills.
And you'll never know unless you ask. So, here's a simple plan of attack for everyone who has ever been afraid to work a room.
What to Wear
Make sure you ask what to wear. Men need to know if a suit coat and tie will be appropriate, and women need to figure out the high-heel factor. If you're told the party is casual, assume that the person means business casual. Very few holiday parties encourage the wearing of blue jeans and sneakers. When in doubt, ask specific questions.
If you don't know what you're supposed to wear and there's no way to find out, err on the side of caution. If you wear a tie and nobody else has one on, you can always surreptitiously stow your tie in the pocket of your suit coat. The same is true for women: If no one else is wearing a suit, you can ditch your jacket on a chair and go without. You'll look slightly less formal, but you'll still be coordinated and business-like.
What to Do
When you get to the party, relax. Don't feel that you have to run up to the first person you see and start a conversation. Get a drink first. Check out the snacks. Then try to find the person who invited you.
You want to make sure that this person knows you came, but you don't want to become that person's shadow. The danger is that you'll want to stay close to the only person you know. Fight against this inclination, because it makes you look needy. Chat with the person you know for a few minutes and then go and meet new people.
In most cases, the person who invited you will introduce you to at least one other person. You have now just doubled the number of people you know at the event.
If you don't get introduced, don't panic. Smile and head to the food. No matter what they're serving, you are likely to be able to start up a food-related conversation with someone next to you.
"Oh, is that couscous?" "Gee, these shrimp are great." "Is that a meatball in the dough or a mushroom?"
If the recipient of your witty food one-liner seems friendly, start up a conversation.
Working the Room
Some networking experts suggest that you try to merge with a group of 10 or more people and chat with them. Other experts suggest that you pick out people on the fringes of the room, the wallflowers, and chat them up. Still other experts advise you to chat with one person in each corner of the room, because that will get you moving and keep you from standing in just one spot.
Whatever you decide to do, don't feel that you have to speak with everyone at the party. Choose a reasonable number, say five, and try to have interesting conversations with that many people.
What to Say
Just because it's a business-related party does not mean that you have to launch into a discussion of your business right away. Start with small talk.
The best way to begin a conversation is to ask about the other person. Dale Carnegie used to say that everyone loves to talk about their favorite subject—themselves. You can't go wrong asking friendly looking strangers if they work at the company or how they happen to be at the company party.
Try out some networking lines (they're similar to the old barroom pick-up lines, but hopefully not as bad): "How's business?" "What's the No. 1 thing that keeps you up at night?" Even start by sharing what prevents you from sleeping. By divulging a personal observation, you're giving the people you're trying to chat with the opportunity to share something about themselves.
Keep your conversations short. If the other person starts looking around, checking her watch or fumbling for his cell phone, it's probably time to move on. And please don't chat with one person while your eyes are cruising the room for your next conversational victim. That's rude. The best way to network is to pay complete attention to the person you are talking to at the moment. Giving someone your complete attention is a wonderful gift and will make everyone you talk with think well of you and your "skills" as a conversationalist.
When to Flash a Business Card
Do not, under any circumstances, pass out your business card to everyone you meet. That's considered bad form.
If you talk with someone and that person offers her card, take it and give her one of your own. If you meet someone you'd like to contact for business, give him your card and take his if he offers it or just ask for it.
There isn't a rule about passing out business cards, but networking is about building relationships. You need to begin the relationship as two friendly people. If you have business matters in common or businesses that complement one another, you will quickly get to the business card stage.
But if you're just two business people with absolutely nothing in common, handing out your business card won't do you any good. When in doubt, wait for the other person to ask for your card.
One final word about business cards: If you meet someone interesting with whom you'd love to chat again, ask him for his business card or hand him yours. Life is too short to miss out on conversations with interesting people.
After all, isn't that why you agreed to attend the party in the first place?
After It's Over
When you're ready to go home or the event is over, be sure to bid farewell to the person who invited you and thank her for the invitation.
The next day, send the person an e-mail or a personal note thanking her again for the invitation and explaining that you had a nice time and met a number of interesting people.
If you met people at the party you'd like to chat with again, call or e-mail them, remind them where you met and invite them out for coffee or lunch.
Relax. You were brave. You went to the party. You chatted with strangers. And if you were lucky, you met people you look forward to talking with again. That's all it takes to network. It's truly that simple.
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