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How to Work a Room with Ease

Tips for networking among strangers


If you arrive hungry or thirsty, hit the buffet first. Eat quickly, finish, and only then start working the room. Don't try to juggle a drink, a plate, and business cards, and shake hands. Wash or thoroughly wipe your hands before you get started. Who wants to shake a sticky hand?


If two people are deep in conversation, don't interrupt. "Wait for one of them to turn toward the room, and that's your signal," says Cynthia Lett, an etiquette expert in Silver Spring, Md. Then make eye contact with one of them and introduce yourself. He should introduce you to the other person, but if not, do it yourself. Repeat your full name, which the other person may not have caught.


You're introducing someone you just met and can't remember her name. Own up to it, says Lett. Look her in the eye, smile, and say, "I've met so many interesting people and your name is on the tip of my tongue. Please remind me?" Don't try to wriggle out with, "You two know each other, right?"


If you want to check out of a conversation, try: "I know you want to meet others, and I'm glad we had a chance to speak. I wish you well with your project." If you intend to get back in touch, say so, even just with a simple, "I'll give your office a call next week." If you shook hands at the start of the conversation, extend your hand again. What if you sense that the other person wants to exit? If she's looking over your shoulder, take the hint quickly, say that you hope you'll meet again soon, and turn away. And if someone practically dumps you midsentence? Let him go. Don't follow.


Don't come out and ask for a card, since the other person may not want to give you one or may have run out, and you don't want to embarrass her. Instead, say, "How may I reach you?" and let her give you a card or offer some contact information. If someone does give you a card, exchange yours. And there's no polite way to reject a card you don't want. Accept it—with thanks.

Return to the BWSmallBiz October/November 2009 Table of Contents

Lee is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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