We’ve spoken before about the challenges of walking away from a conversation and came up with a few techniques on how to do that. Of course, to use these techniques we have to get into a conversation, first. This is one of those areas that makes a lot of people uncomfortable with attending networking events. Walking up to and striking up a conversation with other people is really putting ourselves out there. What if they don’t want to talk?
Let’s look at different possible groupings that we might see at an event and talk about how we might approach each one.
- One person. This is an easy one. If you see one person standing off by himself (assuming he isn’t talking on his cell phone), then you can just pretend you are the host of the party, walk up and say hello. I’ll sometimes say that they looked bored or lonely so I thought I would come over to say hello. Introduce yourself listen to their response and then ask some of your prepared questions. A lot of times, if you see someone standing alone off to the side, it means that they are painfully uncomfortable with the situation, so you approaching them makes you the hero.
- Two people. This one is a little more challenging and you really need to read their body language to know how or whether to approach. If they are shoulder to shoulder, facing the room, then feel free to walk up and say hello. If they are squared off to each other (face-to-face) or shoulder to shoulder facing away from the rest of the room, then they are usually having a private conversation which would be rude to interrupt.
- Two people — one friend, one friend-to-be. This is a special case of the previous group. In this case, one member of the group you are approaching is someone you know already. The nice thing here is if you can catch your friend’s eye, then they are likely to invite you to join them and will also probably make the necessary introductions. Of course, still keep an eye on the body language. Even your friends have a right to a private conversation.
- Three people. I met a young man recently who claimed that he loved to enter an existing three-way conversation. His method was just to walk up, wait for a break, and then ask for permission to join. He said it was much more efficient than meeting people one at a time. I think my only concern would be that it’s harder to make a connection with three people than it would be for only one or two. There might also be a tendency to focus on talking about ourselves instead of finding out about them. Still, if you can make it work, then by all means, give it a shot.
- Four or more people. The good thing about larger groups is that it as the number increases, it actually becomes easier to join in. The larger the group the less likely it is that they are having a private conversation. The downside is that it becomes almost impossible to make connections with individuals — which is kind of the whole purpose behind going to the event in the first place.
Also, larger groups afford the possibility that, as the conversation has ebbed and flowed, one or more people may have been cast adrift, so its a good time to then chat that person up. Having just been in the current of one conversation, its sometimes easy to get them into another.
Excellent point. To that end, it really behooves the skillful networker to be aware of those ebbs and flows of conversation. Usually, a little observation will help us know when it's the right time to approach because someone is about to be "conversationally bereft" as opposed to when they are actively engaged with someone else.