Garrison Keillor likes to joke about shy people finding the strength to get up and do what has to be done. We laugh along with him because, shy or not, we all know the feeling of trying to succeed in an uncomfortable social setting.
When your job description includes Public Affairs, you can find yourself in awkward public situations where you just don’t know a lot of people. There are times, however, when one has to just get in there and go to work.
Take, for example, “working a room.”
I’m not talking about a neighborhood party or a closing time happy hour – rather, a structured event where there are targeted individuals. Perhaps a luncheon for a key committee chairperson or an annual reception where a few governors are expected. If you have a hot issue that someone important needs to hear about, then you had better be in attendance and working.
A crowded and noisy room with hundreds of people is not a great place for one-on-one lobbying, especially when it’s full of other professionals trying to do the same thing you are with the same VIPs.
A natural introvert might find this intimidating, especially when mingling among a group of people about whom you simply don’t know. Making it worse, other organization’s lobbyists in attendance may have contributed more to the sponsoring organization than yours did, so their lobbyists’ name tags are fancier than yours (and everyone can see that).
So how does a naturally shy person do what has to be done in such a situation?
Like a lot of people, I’m actually a bit of an introvert. But my job relies on finding ways to thrive at times like these, whether I want to do it or not.
Over the years, I’ve developed a few techniques to reduce the pain, maximize the gain and make a memorable impression. Let me share a few:
1. The Myth of Being Fashionably Late
If it’s listed as a 90-minute to two-hour event, don’t plan to show up 60 minutes after it starts. It’s pointless to show up at all if only to discover that all the celebrities that you are supposed to talk to have already left for other events.
You don’t have to get there early, just don’t be too late.
2. Act Like You Own the Room
From the moment you walk through the door, put a smile on your face and behave like you’re right at home. Everyone there assumes that you belong, so don’t do anything to make them think differently.
Pick up that name badge with a confident air and enter the hall with a start-the-party attitude.
3. Keep Moving
Standing alone while looking at your phone is no way to find who you are looking for. Start slowly moving around the crowd while doing a quick scan to see who is where.
See a small knot of people? They are likely around someone you want to speak with.
Head that way.
4. Bond Over Food
If your initial circumnavigation of the room wasn’t successful, head toward the food.
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Parties at home always end up in the kitchen, and receptions are no exception – people invariably congregate around the food.
Chat someone up over the cheese tray; it’s a good way to fill some time, nourish yourself and make a friend before the dignitaries show up.
5. Watch the Booze
This may seem so obvious that you wonder why I even bring it up, yet I’ve seen professional people blow it on more than one occasion.
Free drinks are always nice, but you are there on business. Take it easy or go for the club soda.
That member of Congress you have been aiming for may not appreciate drinkers and they are likely to remember if you were tipsy when they see you the next time.
6. Location, Location
Here’s a move that has worked for me many times: position yourself next to the entry way into the main reception room and hover there.
When the important guests arrive, put a big smile on your face and pounce. You are the first person they are going to see and they will be revved up and ready to chat.
Monopolize them for a few extra minutes while people far in the front of the room stare at you and wonder who that important person is by the door (it’s you).
7. Find the Connection
At a crowded event, you are only going to have a few minutes with your target to make a memorable sales job. Finding some sort of connection helps a lot, but you have to do your homework in advance.
Before you leave for the reception, read the biographies of the elected officials you plan to meet and think about connections:
- Have you been to their hometown?
- Do you have charity interests in common?
- How about a university tie-in?
Tuck away a few nuggets to use as an ice breaker.
Often I find that these tidbits not only add a few extra minutes of face time, they also improve your chances that she will look forward to hearing from you again.
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8. A Few Words About Manners
When an important elected official is chatting at an event, we need to observe protocol.
Calmly make your way to the group where the VIP is talking to people and hover near them. Do not interrupt, just smile and make it clear that you are waiting your turn to say hello.
When your target turns to greet you, this is your moment:
1. Introduce yourself and who you represent
2. Mention your connection, and
3. Make your pitch
Expect no more than a few minutes, but take as much time as the VIP is willing to give you. Remember, there are a lot of other people trying to do the same thing you are, so when you notice that someone else is patiently waiting their turn, politely wrap it up and move on.
Nothing is more annoying than being stuck behind a well-meaning blowhard who wants to tell a politician all about his or her hometown.
We are professionals, people.
9. Let Them See You
After you have met the VIP, when it’s time for her to make informal remarks, don’t hide.
Put yourself right near the front of the room in her line of sight, smile and make fervent eye contact while she is speaking.
Laugh at her jokes and applaud at the right time (try to set your drink down before she starts to speak). It is one more way of implanting yourself in her mind, and if you’re lucky you may even get a shout out.
10. Leave on Your Terms
Maybe you didn’t get to meet everyone you hoped to, or maybe you just felt overly uncomfortable.
Trust yourself to know when it’s the right time to go, even if it’s a little early.
Even if you didn’t get all the face time you wanted, it’s all right – life will go on and you will have a fabulous career no matter when you left the party.
A few simple tricks that have worked for me might work for you, too. There are lots more and I encourage the sharing of ideas.
Now get out there and mingle!
Dan Colgrove is President of ACME Public Affairs and is Senior Advisor to Goddard Gunster.