When I started my career I was lousy at working a room. I could do a lunch meeting and nail it. Public speaking or a sales presentation? No problem. But I was terrible at large cocktail parties or receptions.
I felt like a failure. “I’m in sales!” I thought, “I should just know how to do this!”
But then I realized something important: “Why should I think of working a room differently from any other sales skill? I can read up on it. I can watch the masters at work. I can practice. I can stop looking awkwardly at my phone.”
- Myth: All sales people are super-extraverts. They are born knowing how to work a room at a reception or networking event.
- Fact: Working a room is a skill. Skills can be taught and practiced.
So as we enter this season of receptions, parties and social gatherings let’s gather round and talk about best practices when faced with working a room.
Trick your Brain
The best piece of advice I received early in my sales career was “Banish from your mind the idea you are bothering people. You have a solution they need. You are doing them a favor by contacting them!”
That little mind trick powered me through my first years in sales.
I’ve adapted this for working a reception. Tell yourself that you are the host of the event – even if you are not. A polite host walks around and talks to as many people as they can. It would be rude not to.
Thinking of yourself as the host gives you the extra motivation to circulate and meet as many people as possible.
Pro Tip: Be sure to connect people who have similar interests. People always like to get an introduction – and they are likely to return that favor in the future.
Think Small (Talk)
Small talk has an undeservedly bad reputation. If you charge right in with your sales pitch, however, get ready for failure. The other person will regard you as just another sales person who wants something. No one needs another one of those in their lives.
The ability to casually chat serves a very important function. It gives the other person time to get comfortable with you, and establishes you as a peer or potential friend. So don’t skip the small talk – read up on it and practice. Pro tip: Two essential articles on small talk are: An Introvert’s Guide to Small Talk: Eight Painless Tips via Forbes and How to Master the Fine Art of Small Talk via Fast Company
Stock Up on Things to Talk About
Small talk is the bait. If you want to keep people around you need to keep them interested. The best way to do that? Stock your brain with at least three interesting things to talk about.
Planning ahead helps you relax. You don’t have to stress over what to say next. You already know – you practiced topics in your mind before you arrived. So for your next gathering you might have on tap:
- One industry or group-specific topic. That is if you are going to a reception for widget makers, have a widget topic ready. This shows you are a member of the “club” and know the industry.
- One pop-culture topic or “fun” topic. Pick a movie, TV show, musician, author, sports team, food trend, etc. that you like. It shows you are an actual human that has interests.
- One technology or science topic. Show off your depth and look smart and visionary.
Pro tip: Save time and let the internet help you be interesting.
I skim these sites right before a gathering and always end up looking a lot smarter than I really am:
- Google Pocket is a news aggregator with a “trending now” section and tabs for Tech, Finance, and Travel.
- Pick a news site – AP, USA Today, CNN – and skip past the “top stories” and go for the technology, culture or arts sections.
- For those really looking to up their game, take on one of my personal favorites, Longreads. As the name suggests, it isn’t for cramming right before a party starts. Try to read a couple of these articles a month so you can wow your audience with phrases like “I was just reading this really interesting think piece on tiny houses and the future of urbanization.”
You have sales goals to keep you motivated. Why not set goals for networking events? Go into each reception with a goal in mind. It might be “I’m going to make 5 new contacts tonight.”
A goal will help you decide when it is time to move on and meet someone new. It is really tempting to spend the whole evening talking to the same person – especially if your conversation with them is going well. By having a goal in mind you will remind yourself it is time to move on and meet another new person.
But how to do it? Plan and practice a couple “exit lines” like:
“It was great chatting with you – I need to circulate but let’s stay in touch on XYZ thing we both found interesting. Here’s my card.”
“Thank you for spending a few moments with me – I really enjoyed it!”
Again, you have something in mind already. This takes the stress out of how to close your conversation.
Meeting your goal might mean breaking into a group that is already chatting. People are there to meet other people. Barging in is ok.
In most other social situations cutting in might be considered rude. This is not one of those situations. To make it easier look for a group with an odd number of people. Chances are in a group of three or five there is at least one person who is being left out and would appreciate a conversation partner. Be their hero.
Closing thoughts, and then I need to circulate:
Don’t just assume that your sales people have any idea how to work a reception. I didn’t at the start of my career. It is a skill just like any other. You coach your rookies on sales calls and presentations. Working a room should be no different.
And share this with the introverts in your life. They need to get out more anyway. Having a guidebook will make it less scary. They might even feel better knowing that sales people need the guidance, too.
More about Christopher: Christopher Ware is Founder & Inventor, Sales Tonic Media and is also the VP of Business Development for NAIOP, a national trade association. He is a niche media sales expert with 18+ years’ experience in selling print and digital advertising, event sponsorships, and exhibit space. Christopher has generated $20,000,000 in media sales for niche publications and events. He lives in Virginia with his wife of 18 years. He’s been to all 30 Major League Baseball parks, over 40 minor league parks, and hopes to one day see a game in every state.
Niche Media has the best events, education, and training in media! Our super niched-out events & content give target-audience publishers in the B2C, hobbyist, B2B, city & regional, and association markets the tools they need to build revenue, audience, and more.