Last week I described my favorite mechanisms for exiting a conversation, and several readers replied with the same question. How can I avoid the awkwardness of entering a conversation?
I thought a lot about this question and realized the honest answer varies based on too many factors for me to fit in one post. So for brevity purposes, I will base this post on one of the most common settings for an awkward networker like myself, as I guide you through entering a conversation without looking like a lurking weirdo. I must stress, however, the task of entering a group’s established conversation is ripe for lurking weirdness. But hey, that’s part of the fun, right? Keep reading, take a chance, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself out there!
It’s a professional luncheon. Your favorite. They added “eon” after the name of the meal, so you know there’s going to be forced networking. Your company sponsored your attendance, yet all your coworkers bailed last minute. Those darn client deadlines – the perfect excuse! You feel like you’re reliving your preteen years when your crush said he/she was going to play spin the bottle and totally chickened out mid-spin. Now your friends have pictures of you kissing the outcast that only got invited so your parents would believe it was a study party.
You sign-in at the reception desk and receive your badge or lanyard or whatever awkward identification device you need to append to your body while people look at you. You now emerge into a room that’s at about 60-70% capacity, and nearly all of them are engaged in conversation. Tables are to your left, set for lunch but chairs are empty. Don’t worry – your table number is on the back of the name tag you just pinned to your lapel, which should make for some fun contortions on your part. Here you are. Networking time. You pan the room and can’t identify a single face. Time to get to work.
Don’t hesitate. Locate the drinks and walk casually toward them. Water, coffee, soft drink – whatever is there. Just grab something to keep in your left hand. During this walk and beverage selection, you hopefully encountered someone and engaged them. Let’s assume that since you just arrived, you were still too timid to capture the person’s attention. No problem, let’s continue.
Walk the Room
You know that look you have when you’re lost and driving through a really rough neighborhood? Like you absolutely know where you’re going, and you meant to drive down this scary driveway? Harness that same fear-masking glare as you peruse the crowd. You’ll only have 30 seconds at the most for this exercise, so it’s important to know what you’re looking for.
Look for a conversation with your complete opposite. If you’re in a talkative mood, look for a conversation that seems to be quiet and possibly a little boring. Your energy and introduction will be warmly welcomed. If you’re in a quiet or timid mood, look for a group with one or more extroverts. They’re likely telling a story that requires wild gesticulations and bold outbursts of laughter. That’s your conversation to join for two reasons. First, bold extroverts thrive on an audience, so there will always be room for one more. Second, there’s a chance you may never need to say anything, but you’ll be entertained long enough to start finding comfort in your current situation. Then when there’s a pause, you can introduce yourself and get to know a few nice people.
With either of these conversations, two suggestions apply:
Try not to interrupt the person currently speaking, or build-off what they’re saying as if you’ve been there the whole time. If someone is in the middle of talking, just ease your way into the perimeter, give the person to your right a slight pat on the shoulder and a “hi, thanks letting me in” smile and wait. As soon as you sense a lull, introduce yourself to everyone – name, title, employer. Remember: it’s a networking event! You didn’t walk into the break room at a Target. These people are expecting to be approached by strangers, so you shouldn’t feel awkward approaching them.
Try not to ask an individual member of the group a specific question that could potentially alienate the rest of the members. “So what do you do at ABC Company?” The rest of the group may have already heard this spiel, and are now disengaged. You spent 10 seconds in the circle and already broke it up. Now you know how that spin the bottle kid felt in 7th grade. Instead, try to keep it general and open-ended. Maybe use one of your stock questions you created during your 5 minute prep session.
The Lump of Coworkers
Here’s another group to sniff-out: the group of coworkers that all came together so they could gossip about Tracy and Mike’s secret office romance. Many solo networkers are intimidated by this group, but I love them. Let’s face it. They’re at a networking function, and they’re not networking. They know they should be meeting new people, but the comfort of their little coworker nest is too strong to leave. Approach that group with a simple “Hello – I’m Sean Hand… and who do you all work for?” By the time the six of them finish admitting they work 20 feet from each other, they’ll be begging you to join their group and make them look less isolating. They’ll pepper you with questions of professional and personal natures, and eagerly explain each of their roles within the company. It’s heaven for an awkward networker. Also, we’ve just established that the world is dark and scary outside their safe circle, so there is no chance of the group disbanding, solidifying your captive audience. Not to mention, they can now leave the event and tell their employer they met people. It’s a win-win for everyone.
If all else fails or you’re looking for a change of pace, try my confident loner strategy. It takes a little gusto but is highly effective. To be a confident loner, all you need is a drink, a light snack and a high-top table. Simply set-up by yourself. Eat your snack. Sip your drink. Leave your phone in your pocket. And plaster a look on your face that says open for business. Think about it. These events are filled with people awkwardly trying to initiate and sustain organic conversation with strangers. Everyone wants to jump into new conversations, exchange business cards, and stay engaged long enough to get to their sales pitch.
All of that energy is swirling chaotically around the room, except the one person standing confidently by him/herself munching a snack and sipping a drink. It’s a power move. You’re confidently waiting to be approached as if you’re someone who deserves being approached. Deep down you’re just an awkward networker munching on some olives (which you suddenly realized aren’t pitted and are currently pondering how to spit-out and dispose of the pit without looking disgusting). But to the rest of the room you are a person who is confident enough to stand alone, yet inclusive enough to conjure an audience with ease.
I hope this post helps you think of new ways to enter an established conversation. As always, I’m open to new techniques, so if you have one that’s different please share it below, so we can all give it a shot! And for the record, I had that 7th grade spin the bottle moment too – my friend’s cousin, Molly. Savage. I mean who bails on spin the bottle mid-spin?