Bashfulness has never been my strong suit.
Nevertheless, when confronted with a room of strangers, it is never easy to figure out a logical way of connecting with appropriate folks. However, having the courage to do so is actually easier.
Let’s start with preparation. You need to have business cards. The truth is that they don’t have to be all that fancy, just your name, rank and serial number is sufficient, but you do have to have them. One of the grand gestures of business life is handing someone your business card and asking them for one of theirs. It is hard to come up with a good excuse not to hand you back a business card when you have just given them one of yours. If you can come up with a few pithy words to add to your card about what you do, it is always a good idea.
The next step is if you are attending a public meeting of some kind that has pre-registration, pre-register! I can’t begin to tell you how unprofessional you appear to be with one of those hand lettered name badges. In addition, only by pre-registering will you be on any attendance list that is distributed after the meeting. Try to get your “actual” name on your badge. I go by Matt and put that on my badge that I wear to meetings of The FENG. Other meeting organizers are apparently not as sensitive as I am to the “greeting to use” issue. Still, your given name is better than one of those hand lettered badges any day of the week.
Get to the meeting early, especially if they are serving food. No, it’s not because you want to get the best muffin or the hottest coffee. It is because you want to be finished eating before most people get there. In addition, if you are there early you have the chance to appear like part of the greeting committee. Everyone coming in assumes that you have been there a while. Besides, I have never found it easy to shake hands with a cup of coffee.
Hopefully you have been attending meetings of The FENG and you have been practicing your 90-second announcement so that it sounds natural. This is the time you need to pull out your 30-second announcement. My name is, followed by your primary areas of expertise and perhaps your most recent company. Remember back in college? The great opening line was: “What’s your major?” Same deal here. It honestly isn’t all that hard to ask someone: “So, what does your firm do?” Quickly followed by: “And, what do you do for the firm?” If that doesn’t get them talking, not much will. Traffic and the weather are ALWAYS good topics. Politics and religion NEVER are.
Learn to speak in “hushed tones” about the work you do. The information that you were fired as part of a downsizing or because of office politics is for another time. Even that the company went out of business or moved is of little interest to those around you. What they want to know is what, if anything, you can do for them or those they know.
I also suggest that if this is a regular meeting of some kind that you try to concentrate on a handful of people, rather than trying to meet everyone. First of all, it isn’t possible. Secondly, it can come off as rude. You just never know how important the person you are talking to really is. Some unassuming types may just own the company.
Most successful politicians have a talent for making the person they are conversing with feel as if they are the only person in the room. This is a good model for you. Get the other person talking about themselves and you will win every time.
Remember, strangers are only friends you haven’t had a chance to get to know.