How to Work the Room

Written by Larry Chiang

Tips on ‘Social Graces’ – the one thing you need that an MBA can’t give you

So you’ve got your engineering degree, and your marquee MBA, and a business-plan. You’re on your way. But at some point you’re going to have to ‘grace’ your way through an important networking or social event. How you handle this matters-probably more than you care to admit.
Anyone who has attended a Silicon Valley networking event can attest to the fact that “Social Graces” often elude us founders. But if we were “hacking” or “grocking” our way to better methods of networking, the user manual would be 10 inches thick! There is such a thing as “Social-Business Protocol.” Not all of us in the startup universe are born with it, we can all learn it. So, here are my 10 tips for founders en route to the power-party circuit.

1. Be more of a host and less of a guest.
Susan Roane and Letitia Baldridge say there are two types of people at a party: hosts and guests. People like hosts more because they make introductions, and make people more comfortable. Guests tend to need attention and maintenance. Susan wrote the ageless book How to Work a Room and Letitia wrote Executive Manners.

2. Avoid permanently joining a “rock pile.” A rock pile is a pack of people in a tight circle. It’s natural to huddle because it makes us feel safe, but it borders on anti-social.

3. Dress for the party. The more junior you are, the better you should dress. I always try to dress up because of my lower-than-average IQ. On the other hand, an advanced networking strategy is to show up severely under/over-dressed. If you’re caught off guard with an impromptu invite, execute under-dressed (aww shucks) Mark Zuckerburg’s Adidas flip-flop routine.

4. Don’t “hotbox”. Hotboxing is squaring the shoulders front and center to one person. In groups one person will often “hotbox” the target/VIP of the group. Hotboxing in a one-on-one conversation is OK, but it excludes others from joining.

5. Put your coat and bag down. Your coat is non-verbal communication that you: a) need a shield; b) just got there; c) don’t trust the host’s coat check; d) are not healthy enough to keep your body at 98.6; e) are imminently about to leave. Women can be forgiven for keeping a purse, but it’s a networking sin for a man to keep a ‘man-purse’ (i.e. backpack, tote- or laptop-bag).

6. Mentor someone about your-or your company’s-core competence. Since Duck9 educates college students about FICO scores and debt minimization, I have networking talking points on FICO scores and the urban legends that surround them. It transitions nicely from the what-do-you-do-for-work question. It also adds some substance to party conversations and clearly brands you as a person. I’m the duck dude, with the magnet for a card, that does credit education.

7.Don’t forget to get mentored as well. A great guy I know has one rule for social-professional success: his party goal is to learn three new things at every event. It is very effective. He tilts his head like my shih tzu and gets all sorts of credit for being a great listener.

8. Be a good host while you’re someone else’s guest. Say ‘Hi’ to wall flowers. I once saw a tier-1 celebrity work the fringe of the room. He must’ve said ‘Hi’ to 12 wallflowers. Actors don’t get paid
to act, they get paid to promote. As entrepreneurs, we better promote ourselves by being gracious to everyone. This means making introductions, too. Introduce a junior person to a senior person. Include one positive snipet about both as you do so: “Sarah, I’d like to introduce Hazel, she started Fashion4 and also leads the “Ladies Who Launch” here in Silicon Valley. Hazel, this is my friend Sarah whom I told you about from?” (Letitia Baldridge has an entire chapter on this.)

9. Managing the party host. When you’re interacting with the host, ask simple questions requiring a ‘Yes/No’ response. I’ve heard disastrous questions in a vain attempt to out alpha-male the host. The best questions to ask of a host are upbeat, light and fluffy. If you want to be Mike Wallace/Chris Matthews with a hardball question, tread lightly. Also, help your host wiggle by wrangling them away from guests who are monopolizing or “hotboxing” them. They will thank you later.

10. Always, always, always: Thank the host before you leave.

These are some of the basics of good networking. One bonus tip for when you are havng a hard time at an event: play ‘Convo Bingo’. Make a list of ‘bingo’ words in your head and every time you hear a word on your list,cross it off. This will force you to listen intently and actively drive the conversation towards your “bingo words.” It also makes you a better audience to other guests. A sample bingo card is available here.

2 thoughts on “How to Work the Room

  1. Susan RoAne

    Great point about not “hotboxing” the hosts! And thanks for mentioning me…. As the author of How To Work a Room, and someone who has spoken for MBA students including Wharton and University of Chicago, there are many more ideas, suggestions and strategies in my book. The article I wrote for Guy Kawasaki’s blog of the ten top points from my newly revised edition included having our own prepared self-introduction. There rarely is someone who will introduce us around. The RoAne Rule: it’s a 7-9 second pleasantry… not the 15-30 second “elevator speech”. And you key it to the event so that others know why you are in attendance. Because people generally respond in kind, they will introduce themselves with that extra bit of info and the conversation begins. And the fun, too!

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