Career Q&A: How to work a room

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I was at a recent professional conference and learned a great deal at the sessions, but had some difficulty when it came to the social get-togethers. I am a naturally shy person but do enjoy talking to people in general. Do you have any tips for how to be more successful?

There is no doubt that it can be intimidating to initiate any social interaction or conversation when faced with a crowded room of virtual strangers. However, with some quick tips, you can help yourself to ease into what essentially can be a series of one-on-one conversations. Don’t focus as much on the whole crowd as on the individual members.

Do some preparation

Try to do some research on who will be there and plan who you'd like to meet. Prepare a short introduction for yourself. Visit the restroom occasionally to make sure you are fully presentable (no food in the teeth, lipstick is good, etc.) Set a target for yourself, such as "I’d like to have a conversation with Pat Smith" or "I want to meet three new people."

Before jumping in...

Don't forget to smile! Nothing says "I'm a friendly person, open to talk" than a nice smile. Keep your drink in your left hand at all times. This keeps your right hand free (and warm) for shaking. Try not to eat and drink at the same time, especially while standing. It's ok to sit while eating, but get up when you've finished. You'll meet more people that way.

What does your body say? It should be "I’m open to a chat." Do not cross your arms, hunch over, lurk in a corner, or engage in other protective behaviours. Instead, be engaged and smile, smile, smile. You may get rejected by some people, but if that happens, simply move on to someone else.

Define your strategy

Do not simply barge into the first group you see, but wait for someone to acknowledge you by shifting position to allow you entry into the conversation. Look for gaps in conversation circles. Focus on the faces and eyes of those with whom you are engaging in conversation. Do not lead with your business card but strike up a conversation first. At the conclusion of your discussion, you can ask them for their card first, then offer them yours. Remember to treat each card with the respect it deserves. If you notice someone monopolizing your time, have an exit strategy defined also. A good excuse is a washroom break, drink refresher, or simply say "wonderful to talk to you, but please excuse me."

There really is no magic formula for successfully working a room, so remember these basics, and most of all, try to enjoy yourself. Even if you meet only one new person, you have been successful.

Good luck!

Mitchell Stephenson M.A., CPCC, is a senior partner and a certified professional career counsellor at Catalyst Careers, a career transition, counselling, and outplacement firm. Mitch has been involved in human resources, career counselling and coaching in the health and legal sectors for many years. To contact him, visit:

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Disclaimer: Advice and recommendations are based on limited information provided and should be used as a guideline only. Neither the author nor make any warranty, express or implied, or assume any legal liability for accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information provided in whole or in part within this article.

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