by Heather White

How to work a room professionally

Everyone asks ‘how to work a room’ and the expression is now famous. Personally, I dislike the expression, because it sounds clinical and hard. However, it does explain what this section is about.

The reason why people ask questions about how to work a room is because it is the biggest fear factor of all the components of networking. Why? Because it is in this environment that we will most likely risk meeting rejection of some sort.

The 80/20 rule applies. People are people the world over, so 80 per cent of your effort should be focused on your interpersonal skills, with the aim of building rapport and trust. As every event is slightly different, 20 per cent of your focus should go on adapting to that environment.

For most of us, going to an event can be somewhat uncomfortable at times, and the only way to get through this discomfort is to remember these four things:

  1. Practice makes very nearly perfect (there is always something new to learn)
  2. The less you do, the more ‘clumsy’ this will feel
  3. The only thing you have to sell is yourself
  4. Success is when you walk away from the ‘right’ person, knowing they will take your call the next day.

Techniques and emotional intelligence

There are two principle issues that come into play when considering how to work a room. There are the ‘actual techniques’, such as breaking in and out of a group, and then the ‘emotional issues’, such as confidence and self-esteem (see Techniques for shy and quiet types).

In general terms, you should

  • Always focus on building trust and rapport
  • Focus on finding the common ground with everyone you meet
  • Stay a warm, open and approachable human being
  • Get brilliant at the art of conversation and communication.

How to work a room as a guest


Seven key things to do

  1. Always get rid of any personal belongings – just keep your business cards.
  2. Always wear an outfit with a pocket to put your business cards (and money) in.
  3. Always wear something distinctive – it’s a good hook for later, because it will help people to remember you.
  4. Always make a point of saying hello to the organiser, sponsors and host.
  5. Always build rapport, trust and interest – never ‘sell’.
  6. Always develop the art of communication to the highest level you can.
  7. Always spend a little time reconnecting with people you have met before – they are your ‘developing sales force’.

Remember this

  • Not every event is the same, so apply the principle ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’.
  • Everyone has their own reasons for attending an event and they may not be the same as yours.
  • Not everyone networks or understands how to network.

Stop thinking this is about you!

  • Most people only think about themselves; this is not selfish, just normal.
  • Most people don’t ‘people watch’, so they won’t notice if you have done anything ‘wrong’.
  • Most people enjoy a good conversation – so don’t do the silly superficial stuff.
  • Just ask anyone a good question and off they go.

What to do with your hands?

  • Have a glass in one hand – always left hand so that when you shake hands you don’t give someone a cold handshake because of the drink you were holding.
  • Men, it is OK to put your hands in your pockets and stand in a relaxed way.
  • Women, it is OK to fold your arms and stand in a relaxed way.

What to do when you first arrive

All of this becomes habit after a very short time.

  • Pin your badge top right as it makes it easier for people to read; yes, men – this does include you!
  • Introduce yourself to the sponsors/organisers and find out about their objectives and focus – it is a nice way to get warmed up.
  • See if there is a list of guests and, if so, read the guest list and see who you might want to meet.
  • To warm up, do some ‘kitchen networking’: go to the refreshment area and have a drink or some food, but not both at the same time (leave one hand free).
  • Stand quietly on your own for a few minutes and watch the room – see who is talking to whom.
  • Always re-establish relationships with people you know first: it makes joining a group that much easier, plus they are likely to be talking to someone you don’t know, thus giving you a new contact.

When moving around the room...

When moving around the room, you need to keep focused on certain essentials.

Three ways to remember names quickly

  1. Give the person 100 per cent of your attention when they say their name and repeat it in your head.
  2. Say the person’s name at least three times during the conversation, but not like a parrot!
  3. When you are given a card, look at it carefully and make an association between the person’s face and their card.

What to do if you have forgotten a person’s name

  • If you are still with them, take a quick peek at their name badge (another reason why we should wear badges top right).
  • Listen carefully to the conversation, as most people mention their own name.
  • If you have their business card, take a quick look.
  • Once you have their name again, repeat it two or three times to make sure you don’t forget.
  • If all else fails, be honest; be sincere; smile, and ask them to tell you their name again.
  • Remember, people really don’t take offence if you ask.

Building trust and rapport

People buy from people they like and trust first. In effect, they are buying trust, professionalism, expertise, like-mindedness and so on.

  • Remember the golden rules of networking: being likeable, building trust and rapport, planting seeds about your expertise.
  • Build the conversation, basing it on common ground.
  • Show genuine curiosity.
  • Learn how to read body language.
  • Listen and learn how the particular person you are talking to at a given moment prefers to communicate.
  • Stay engaged throughout the conversation.
  • Develop the conversation.
  • Become the observer of others; notice their approach to things, and take this into consideration.
  • Work on your people skills and treat others as they would want to be treated.

Questioning and listening

  • Ask more questions, rather than just talking about yourself.
  • Talk about what you do only if invited. Don’t force your information on others.
  • People only listen when they are ready to, so create that opportunity. You know how it is when you are itching to say something and the other person carries on talking – it’s as if your ears go deaf as your brain doesn’t want to forget this important point. When people are feeling like this, their facial expressions show it – some people even open and close their mouths, resembling a gold fish! But remember you are not the only one, and if someone else is talking, let them finish their point. Make sure you hear them out totally, and do completely engage. After all, if you don’t hear them out, why would they want to listen to you?
  • It is OK for a conversation to finish without you having contributed information about yourself.
  • Memorise at least ten good generic questions, remembering that quality questions have a strong ‘emotional hook’ to stimulate the conversation (see The art of creating a stimulating conversation).
  • Be genuine and fresh each time you ask a question – even if you have asked this a thousand times over.
  • Listen carefully and frame your next question out of the response.
  • Be careful not to make the process sound like an inquisition.
  • Your face, voice, eyes and body language should express real interest, not a learned technique.

How to move around the room elegantly

Most of this is simply a matter of social commonsense. If you follow the basic rules of social etiquette on these occasions and meet with rejection; it is their problem, not yours!

How to break into a group of strangers

If you don’t know anyone at all, here is what you do:

  1. Stand on your own for a few minutes and simply watch the room. People will be very engrossed with others, so you won’t be noticed doing this.
  2. To select which group to join, simply observe the intensity of conversation between people. How can you tell if the conversation is intense?
  • The group is closed.
  • There is a lot of eye contact.
  1. So, join a group where there is a gap and walk in, making eye contact with one person (normally the one opposite you).

Alternatively, say hello to someone who is on their own.

What to do when you join a group

  • Make eye contact with one person when you first join the group, making sure that you look happy to be joining them.
  • If the group stops talking when you join them, introduce yourself by giving your first name only and who you work with, speaking slowly. You can also shake hands with people at this stage.
  • If you have an unusual name, provide a ‘hook’ so that people can easily remember it.
  • When the person says their name, repeat it back.
  • Concentrate hard and listen carefully.
  • If you don’t hear the name clearly, ask for it to be repeated. Concentrate and listen.
  • If they carry on talking when you join them, enjoy listening to the conversation and eventually join in.
  • Join in by using your facial expression and body language.
  • Don’t stand there like a dummy and either sulk because they haven’t asked you who you are or pay no attention to the conversation.
  • Stay enthusiastic, fresh and interesting. If you aren’t, why should they be interested in you?
  • Find common ground so you can connect quickly.
  • Have a list of questions in your mind as a way of stimulating conversation.
  • Remember that first impressions count; remember it is all about lasting impressions; remember it is all about enjoying yourself!

When not to shake hands with people you meet

  • If the conversation carries on when you join in.
  • If there are more than four people in the group (unless the whole group is keen to ‘greet you’).
  • The handshake is not always the first form of greeting for people from some cultural backgrounds. Use a rule of thumb that says if a hand is not offered to you, you should hold back and assess the situation.

How to get over the ‘glazed look’

  • As soon as you see the ‘glazed look’, take stock of what you are talking about in relation to the person concerned.
  • Very quickly bring the conversation to a stop and ask a question to re-engage them.
  • To increase the energy again, you can use humour and even some cheekiness!
  • Sometimes, the glazed look is simply because the other person is thinking about what you have said, so you can allow silences (serious people do this a lot!).
  • If you believe this person is not interested in having a conversation, thank them for their time and let them move on.

How to leave a group professionally

It is perfectly OK to move around at these events, but you should take your leave in a very professional manner – you can lose a few brownie points by doing this badly. Say why you are leaving – some acceptable reasons are given below.

  • I wish to continue circulating. Thank you, it has been most interesting.
  • I would like to introduce you to X as I think they might be a useful contact.
  • This has been very interesting. Thank you.
  • I will be in contact with you later this week. Thank you.
  • I shall expect your call later... really looking forward to speaking to you again.
  • Please excuse me.


  • Make sure you do not leave someone feeling rejected or unimportant
  • Shake hands with the person/group, repeating names, if appropriate
  • State if you are going to follow up, when and how (email, or telephone)
  • If you have not done so, give out your card (again, only if appropriate).

Why leave a gap in the group?

  • People like space; many are not comfortable with close encounters.
  • When joining a group, leave a gap to allow others to join in or to leave the group.
  • If someone fills the gap, create another one.

How to move away from the network bore

  • First of all, make sure it is not you who is boring!
  • Take responsibility for making the conversation interesting.
  • Take time to find out what really motivates this person.
  • Do not destroy a person’s self-esteem by making them feel useless.
  • To stop a conversation, simply hold out your hand to shake theirs. Like a magnet, their hand will come out to yours, though they may not understand why.
  • Shake their hand and say that you have other people you must meet.
  • Offer to introduce them to someone else who might be useful to them.

When to make your move

  • All conversations have a natural rise and fall, so wait until the fall and then make your excuses.
  • If the group is still chatting but you want to leave, smile politely; gesture your need to move away, and do so.
  • If someone comes to join your group and this breaks the conversation, offer your thanks to the group and move away.
  • If there are just two of you and the conversation is not going very well or is finished, stand slightly to one side of the other person; make eye contact with someone passing by; smile at them, and invite them to join you. Shortly afterwards, make your excuses and leave them to it.

How to find someone when you don’t know what they look like

  • Go back to the host and find out if the person you want to meet has arrived.
  • Ask the host if they know what this person looks like and ask them to point them out to you.
  • If they have not arrived, leave your card with their name badge.
  • Ask everyone you meet along the way and eventually you’ll find someone who knows them.

Never, ever do these things – seriously bad form

The following things are seriously bad form:

  • Cutting across a conversation
  • Joining a group and then immediately changing the subject to suit your needs
  • Looking bored and frustrated when someone else is talking
  • Ridiculing someone
  • Ignoring your colleagues, leaving them nothing to add to a conversation.

How to give and receive business cards

There are many schools of thought on this subject, though to a large extent what you do should depend on the environment. Ideas as to what is appropriate range from giving out your card the minute you meet anyone to doing so only when a certain amount of common ground has been established between two parties and there is some level of rapport. My preference is the latter.

  • Only offer your card if you have built a rapport or the other person has shown some interest.
  • When you are given a card, look at it carefully.
  • During or immediately after a conversation, make notes on the business card about your conversation and include comments, such as date and place of meeting and relevant key action points.
  • Make a note about this person’s speciality or the industry they work in and establish what category this person fits into in relation to your various projects.
  • It is acceptable to offer your card to one person in the group only.

Gaining the first appointment

  • To get the first appointment, you must have one of the following:
  • Established a strong rapport
  • Established common ground
  • Discovered they are interested in your speciality.
  • With any of these in place, it is much easier to obtain the other person’s business card and gain willingness to meet up outside the event at which you’ve met.
  • Agree how you are going to get back in touch: ‘great to meet you; is it easier to telephone or email you to set up a date?’
  • Do exactly what you said you would do.

See The follow up for more details on how to build and maintain these relationships.