Breakfasts, luncheons, dinners and receptions are all part of doing business; they are also essential to gaining business. Being relaxed and friendly at these functions will allow you to meet individuals who could potentially become clients.
Would you prefer not to walk into a social function alone? Are you usually the first to arrive? Have you scheduled a meeting with a client and one of the firm's partners, but the partner arrives late, so you end up carrying the conversational ball for a period of time? These situations can make you uncomfortable, but there are ways to overcome the discomfort.
Following are a few tips that will help you feel prepared and confident in potential business development situations.
PREPARE FOR SMALL TALK
Anticipate the fact that you will need to make some small talk. If you are not normally a gregarious, outgoing person it is difficult to know what to say to strangers or people you have just met. The thought of sharing a meal at a function with seven or nine unknown individuals can leave a person with a loss of words. Prepare yourself for small talk by doing the following:
• Read at least the front page of one newspaper a day -- a local paper is always available even if you are traveling, but choose a global paper like The Wall Street Journal or USA Today, which is usually available in hotel lobbies. Discussing world events (stay away from religion and politics) is a suitable conversation starter.
• Listen to a news radio station if you do not have time to read the paper. This is a good way to use your time wisely when you sit in traffic, on the subway or on a bus on the way to the event.
• Read industry-related newsletters or publications. If you are attending an industry function or meeting prospective clients, this is must.
• Peruse professional journals for hot topics. This is an excellent source of information that will demonstrate your expertise in the field or industry.
• Subscribe to an executive summary publication or audio service. The summaries they provide are from the latest business books and magazines. You will sound as if you are extremely well-read.
• Download podcasts. Many professional associations, radio stations and educational companies now have programs, updates and other tidbits of information that you can download directly to your MP3 player.
• Ask questions. Asking questions and then actively listening to the response can endear anyone to anybody. All people like to talk about themselves, so ask open-ended, dialog-encouraging questions.
• If you are at a complete loss of what to say to someone a simple technique is self-disclosure -- by confessing that this is your first meeting or that you dislike the fish that was served, you open a personal conversation with an individual. Once you have engaged the person then you can switch to small talk or business-related topics.
When you first arrive at a function, take stock of the situation. Look around the room. Where is the food, the bar and the head table? Determine where people are congregating. Are they by a bar, by a vendor table or just standing around? Is there an activity like a display or entertainment that people are involved in? Getting a sense of the room will alleviate some of your discomfort.
CHANGE YOUR MENTAL ATTITUDE
This is the time to kick in the "host" behavior your mother taught you. Hosts are in charge, and they exhibit gracious manners, greet people, introduce people or start conversations. Change your mental state from that of a guest to that of a host. Even if you are a guest at a function, take it upon yourself to notice lost individuals and direct them to the bar, point out that table 4 is in the corner or start introductions around the table.
An effective way to move directly into host behavior is to volunteer at the function. Offer to sit at the registration table, to hand out nametags or to escort important guests to the head table. By taking charge, you exhibit confidence and helpfulness. People meeting you will have a positive first impression, which can lead to another more in-depth conversation later at that function or at the next function.
THE ART OF MINGLING
The best way to start a conversation is to ask good questions. Ask people about themselves -- their jobs, their companies, their roles within the organization, their experience with the association, etc. If you spend 80 percent of your time asking questions (and listening to the responses) and just 20 percent of your time talking, people will remember you as an interested conversationalist and seek you out in the future.
To get you started, you can strike up a conversation with the function's host, sponsor or door greeter. More difficult, but usually successful, is to look for someone else who is alone. Anyone standing by himself or herself will welcome a conversation with you. The best for your livelihood, but maybe the most stressful, is to seek out the chairman or president of the organization hosting the function and introduce (or reintroduce) yourself.
Remember, the more confident you appear, the more comfortable you will make everyone else. Smile and keep in mind that small talk is hard work for almost everyone.
HANDSHAKES AND KISSES
In America, the handshake is the customary business greeting. A handshake signifies you are pleased to meet the person and welcome them. Your handshake says a lot about who you are and how you feel about the other person. Either it can add positively or negatively to the first impression you make. A firm, solid handshake from a man or woman denotes confidence.
Shake hands and introduce yourself to people. While it may sound rudimentary, you cannot imagine the number of people who simply sit down at a table without introducing themselves to the other seven or nine people who are sitting there. Work your way around the table and shake hands before you sit down. If a new guest joins the table, stand up, offer your hand and introduce yourself.
The following handshakes send the wrong message:
The vise grip: A tight squeeze that crunches the knuckles implies someone who might actually pull punches, if things get tough.
The wet fish: Moist or not, grasping a hand that is weak or flimsy leaves an impression of a pushover, an individual with no backbone.
The fingertip shake: Grasping only the fingers of a hand suggests the person is too timid or weak to hold the whole hand.
The two-handed: A two-handed shake can signify real warmth and affection, or it can be interpreted as a power play.
Amy Vanderbilt and Emily Post, etiquette gurus in the United States, had to re-think their position on business kissing. As more women are in business, the business kiss has become more accepted. There are, however, some guidelines. The first and most important rule is that if a woman does not want to be greeted by a kiss, then she should stand back and extend her hand for a handshake. The second guideline, in light of all the sexual harassment litigation, is that a man should not initiate a business kiss.
Other pointers are:
• Women should not leave any lipstick on the recipient.
• A greeting kiss should be an air kiss or a light brush of the cheek.
• A business kiss should never be on the lips.
• A kiss should be bestowed only on people with whom you are well acquainted.
• Women may kiss men or women. Men may kiss women, and depending on the culture, men may kiss men.
Making a connection is a skill, a technique and an attitude. You can learn how to do it, but you have to have the desire and tenacity. It just takes practice, practice and more practice.
Dr. Sharon Meit Abrahams, a member of the Marketing the Law Firm newsletter's Board of Editors, is the director of professional development at McDermott Will & Emery. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.