Some people enter a room of strangers and glide along from one lively conversation to another, uncovering golden new business contacts.
How do they do it? These people know how to read a room—a capacity that can be partly inborn, but also learned. From the barrage of sights, sounds and behavioral details, they extract clues about which people have the most to offer and which to avoid.
That energetic guy with the 1,000-watt smile, booming voice, ready handshake and a fistful of other people’s business cards might seem like fun, for example. But he’s moving too fast to connect with people in a meaningful way and is probably just trying to bag clients. “You meet somebody at a business function, and five minutes later they’re slapping you on the back and calling you by a nickname, ‘Yo, Vic!’ Only my close friends call me Vic,” says Vickie J. Gray, chief marketing officer at Ober Kaler, a Baltimore law firm. Such glad-handers “give networking a bad name,” she says.
The cues to finding allies in a crowded room aren’t obvious. Those in groups talking all at once and laughing might look like great people to know. Often, however, they’re sharing a private joke or memories of past experiences, and “they’re having way too much fun” to welcome an outsider, says Anne Baber, co-owner of Contacts Count, a networking consultant from Newtown, Pa., that provides training for attorneys at Ober Kaler. A tight circle of three to five people standing face-to-face in a closed O, maintaining eye contact and talking intently, might look intriguing, but they may be solving a pressing problem, making them too busy to greet someone new.
The most promising group may be lined up loosely, with gaps between participants, “just sort of muddling along, trying to have a conversation,” Ms. Baber says. They’re likely to welcome a newcomer, especially someone who can loosen them up. Luiz Vieira networks often in his role as president of a Philadelphia technology and consumer-product materials company and a member of an association of CEOs. He looks for a group that isn’t clicking. “They look like they’re bored, and they need someone to jump-start their conversation,” he says.
Working with Philadelphia impression-management coach Karen Kaufman, he learned to come prepared to talk about a few interesting topics, such as the World Cup or the stock market, and to feel at ease approaching others, asking questions and starting a new discussion. “If you’re able to shift the mood of a group in a positive way, it’s very powerful” in forming bonds with others, he says. Participants in groups that are welcoming often make eye contact as a newcomer approaches, raise their brows in a welcoming way and smile.
Two people facing outward, instead of directly facing each other, also signal a readiness to talk, says Michele Woodward, a Washington, D.C., executive coach.
Ms. Woodward met Liz Sears Smith a few months ago at a museum gathering after spotting her near a standing cocktail table, leaning against the rail shoulder-to-shoulder with a colleague, looking out at the crowd. “It was clear from their body language that they were open,” Ms. Woodward says. Ms. Woodward and Ms. Smith made eye contact and both smiled. Ms. Woodward introduced herself, and they talked for about five minutes and realized their work was similar in some ways