Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mingling 101

Recently I was asked to do a presentation on networking for June 1st. Fortunately this is a topic I've presented on before and we have a great presentation that Deanna has developed that I can deliver. So no worries there. Then my hostess sent me a question that echos questions I've heard from other people - ok, so I've left my cube and I'm confronted with a room full of strangers, what do I do, how to I start a conversation with a total stranger? Do I try and join a group, exactly how do I do that?

These are all great questions and I'll be doing an extended article on this for the ABI site in the next week or so, with research and references to other sites, etc. But for now I thought I'd share my own personal philosophy of mingling. You see I'm very good at picking up strangers - airports, movie lines, bookstores, etc - if you leave me alone for a few minutes and come back I'll usually be talking to someone. One of my former bosses would always leave me with the piles of luggage while he went off to do calls, when he came back I'd be deep in a conversation with the person next to me as if we were old friends. Yet if he stayed with me nothing would happen. He would ask me why and I'd tell him - when you're here I talk to you. Drove him nuts.

While some people are extremely goal oriented - they have a target list of people to meet and do research on those people and plan what they want to achieve at an event - which by the way is excellent if you are entering an event with a goal, meeting new people for me is more for fun.

So , how is it done? How do I approach mingling at large events? This process assumes I'm alone - I'm very different when I'm in a pack of co-workers, etc. If I'm alone- I always do two things.

1. The first is I look for people who aren't speaking to anyone. The person standing alone looking awkward. My mom gave me a great book year's ago - the story was Everyone's Lonely - and the theory in the story was that if you assume everyone else lonely then you've found the secret to happiness. If you make someone else less lonely you will make yourself happier. So if I see someone alone I smile, make eye contact and then move to step 2.

2. I ask questions. I just go up and introduce myself. Hi, I'm Jerri works great. Next come the questions:
  • What's your name?
  • What are you doing here? Are they at this place/event for the first time, or have they been before? If it's the first time then I ask why they came? If not, then why did they come back?
  • Where are you from? I have a huge advantage here - I've been in 43 of the 50 states and I've traveled abroad - so I can almost always find a link. It's also a big advantage having been from New Jersey - it's amazing how many people come from NJ, have family there, have been there, or loved the Sopranos. My home town was the town Tony Soprano's mother lived in - people love that. So it's good to build a bridge and find something I have in common with the other person.
  • What do you do and where do you work? Obvious questions but with strangers it's a good ice breaker. If I know the job they do I talk about it or ask questions - oh, I'm in marketing too, what specifically do you do in marketing? If I don't I try to find out more about their job? So, you're in banking - what exactly do you do? Do you enjoy it? How long have you done it?

Once the conversation has gone on for a while I try and see if we have other areas in common:

  • Are you a movie fan? When I first moved to Lancaster PA my boss decided I needed someone in the company to be my advocate - someone the other employees would respect. Since it was a small town and I was an outsider in many ways, he wanted someone who would help me be accepted. He sent myself and the head of Operations off on a road trip for a day to a Water Company Seminar. In the car the silence had gone on for a while until John turned to me and said - you don't like movies do you? Well I love movies and we talked about them all the way to and from the meeting. And that was it - I was in.
  • Do you like to travel? Always interesting to hear about people's vacations and trips. I have a list of places people have told me about that I'd still like to see. And if you show you're truly interested they will talk for quite a while.
  • What are your hobbies? Again it sounds trite but people are really interesting when they talk about what they love to do.

And that's how I mingle. I seldom talk about work related issues - unless I am asked. I never try to sell anyone anything in that first conversation - it's all about relationship building. And I try to never have a personal agenda. I'm not mingling with people because I need a job, a sale, etc. I don't go in expecting anything. What I do look for is interesting conversation.

So what is my advice for people emerging from their cubes and wanting to mingle:

1. Practice - don't go into that first mingling opportunity with an agenda. Look for someone nice and practice introducing yourself and making small talk. And if they aren't interested move on. And if things get awkward - just excuse yourself to get a drink or use the ladies room. And when you come back in move on to someone else.

2. Don't be afraid - remember everyone is lonely and hoping to talk to someone nice and interesting.

3. Be well read - I read about 4 magazines a week religiously - Newsweek, People, Entertainment Weekly, and Time. Monthly I read Fast Company, Interview, W, Martha Stewart, O (Oprah's Magazine), InStyle. I check Google News Once a day to check the headlines. Plus I read about 5 books a week. All that reading provides lots of interesting nuggets for conversation. And if I fall behind on my magazines I read them on the plane and give them away to strangers - a great in flight conversation starter. You'd be amazed how you can make someone's day by offering them a People Magazine on a long boring flight.

4. Be yourself - if you're a quiet person then look for another quiet person to chat with. Don't struggle to be the center of attention.

5. And if you do have a good conversation going on and see another person standing alone invite them to join in with the conversation. Be a person that bridges people together. You can say, Suzie was just telling me about her trip to Puerto Rico, and let her continue. When there is a natural break ask if the new person has been to Puerto Rico and introduce youself to them. And if you are part of a host company do make an effort to introduce people to each other.

I'm always looking for more tips - so what are your best tips on how to mingle?

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