by Diane Darling

Social Skills: How to Work a Crowd

Jan 01, 20025 mins

Not long ago, I found myself on a 45-foot sailboat cruising the Maine coast. Shivering on deck in a cold rain, I struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be a senior executive for a technology company. Over the next hour, our conversation took many twists and turns, and a few weeks later, I felt comfortable enough to ask him to be an adviser for a new Web company I was starting up.

Such ideal circumstances, of course, are few and far between, but you can make the most of almost any networking opportunity if you know how. A business dinner, the hospitality suite at a conference, a quarterly board meeting?all are suitable occasions for making the right connections. But it takes patience, time and humor to convert the chance encounter into a mutually beneficial relationship. So slow down and take charge of the moment. And remember, when networking catapults from a casual chat to a hard sell, your quarry may lose interest fast.

Here then are a few specific suggestions for planting the seeds that could grow into oaks.

Plan and practice

As a CIO, you frequently get invited to trade shows, conferences and other invitation-only events that offer great networking opportunities. Executives from your own company might be there as well as CIOs, CEOs and CFOs of other organizations. Dan Bricklin, CTO and founder of Trellix, a Concord, Mass.-based Web platform and managed hosting service provider, says he always practices ahead of time what he is going to say. (Think of it as taking the stage to rehearse a few lines.) He also researches the dress code, tries to find out who else is coming and nails down the directions. For Bricklin, there’s nothing worse than being late for an important event. (Hint: If it’s black tie, men should try on their tux when the invite arrives, not the night of the event?just in case the tux no longer fits.)

Another thing to do in advance is think of three topics that are specific to the event. Talk about the city, great food, climate and so on. It may feel fake at first. The reality is you are finding common interests. Everyone likes to do business with people who have similar interests. The more commonalities you can reveal, the more likely you’ll be to get a next meeting.

While there, make the most of your time

Contrary to popular belief, networking is not an opportunity for free food. If you are truly starved, go to the food table, get a plate and hide in the corner for a minute. Then get a drink?carry it in your left hand so that the right is free for shaking hands?and start to meet people. (Breakfast hint: Skip the onion bagels.)

Handshakes can quickly become an arm-wrestling contest or, in some cases, a sweat exchange. Grip so that your palms are together, shake twice and let go. If you are someone who gets nervous, pop in the rest room and wash your hands. The water will be refreshing and calming.

When you’re talking to people, look them in the eye. Look long enough so that you’ll remember the color of their eyes. The color doesn’t matter, the fact you made good eye contact does. (Gents, the change in your pocket?please don’t play with it, it’s very distracting!) As I said before, don’t confuse networking with shoptalk. That new ERP system you’d like the company to buy will take months to install. Similarly, it’s going to take time to get the CEO and other key executives on board. But they’ll be much more inclined to listen to your sales pitch if they are comfortable with you as a human being.

And finally, for all of you who are in love with PalmPilots, be careful. I was recently beamed someone’s contact info while at an event and the next day realized I had his user name and password to all his personal files on

Talk three to eight minutes with each person, tops

There are computer bugs, ladybugs, VW bugs, and then there are people who quickly become your best friend. You need to know how to extricate yourself from these chatterbugs, but it isn’t easy.

From my experience, here are a few lines that don’t work.

“I’m off to the rest room.” The next thing you know so are they.

“I’m going to the bar.” Now they’ll want to have you buy them a drink.

Keep in mind that most people actually want to move on as well, but they don’t know what to say. So sometimes I say, “This is a networking event, so I’ll let you move along.” Or, “It’s been a pleasure speaking to you” will do. One tactic for really persistent people is saying “I’ve got to run. I just saw someone walk in that I owe a phone call to.” Another tactic is to include the person in a conversation with others, then after a few minutes excuse yourself. For those who really won’t move on, a simple clean swift action is needed. At the same time you thank them, reach out to shake their hand and keep moving away. If you stop, you’re stuck.

Write a thank you note

This is a huge chance to separate yourself from the crowd and be memorable. When possible and appropriate, send a quick note of thanks after the event. There are some great cards with slots for your business card and space for a few lines.

Yes, all this takes time, but if you view networking, as I do, as a shortcut to getting things done, then there’s really no choice. Is there?