How to Work a Room
Every gathering has a 'social map' that can be hacked
Whether you’re at a networking event, holiday party, wedding, dinner at a friend’s house or in a conference ballroom, most events have the same basic setup. Near the entrance, there’s a check-in area or a table where you can drop off gifts. You can easily spot the bathroom and the bar or food area. There are usually a few people you recognize — maybe colleagues, friends or acquaintances gathered and already catching up. And of course, the host or boss is holding court in the middle of it all. How you move around the room can have a big impact on how many new people you meet and how well you hit it off with them.
Every event has three basic zones: the Start Zone, the Social Zone and the Side Zone. Many of us follow the same paths through these zones over and over again without even realizing it.
At my lab, the Science of People, we partner with event organizers who let us film and track people’s movement through the venues. For each event, we assign every attendee a number and then observe his or her interaction patterns. At the end of the night, we count how many connections they made and ask each person how many business cards he or she received. The most successful connectors play the zones in a specific way — and you can, too.
The Start Zone
The Start Zone is the entry point at all events, and where nerves run highest. When people have just arrived, they’re usually juggling a lot of thoughts. They’re stressed about running late, focusing on checking in, finding a place to check their coats, surveying the room, seeing if they know anyone, worrying about first impressions, silencing their phones, running to the bathroom or praying for a good time.
The biggest mistake I’ve observed is when people hover around the boundary of the Start Zone. It’s a social trap — you’re catching people at their confidence lows. The people who collected the smallest number of business cards in our studies were those who tried to pounce on fellow guests right in the Start Zone. They didn’t realize that they were trying to meet people who weren’t yet open to connection.
When you approach someone before she gets oriented, she’s distracted during your conversation, looking over your head to scope out the room and trying to find people she knows. You’ll have a much harder time engaging in eye contact and making a meaningful connection. She’ll be more likely to excuse herself to get a drink, grab some food, say hello to the host or go to the bathroom — and less likely to be receptive to anything you have to say.
The Side Zone
The Side Zone is also filled with secret traps. I call it the Side Zone because we noticed that when guests fall into these traps, they become sidelined and don’t meet many new people.
Trap #1: The bathroom. Sure, use the bathroom if you need to, but don’t hover outside it. It’s just plain creepy.
Trap #2: The food table. If you float around the crudité and cheese spread the whole time, not only will you likely eat too much and have to contend with garlic breath and/or an overfull stomach, but you’ll also make it hard for other people to get their fill. It’s awkward to strike up conversations when people are trying to load their plates, almost impossible to shake hands while juggling snacks and a drink and makes for uncomfortable chatting-while-chewing moments.
Trap #3: People you already know. Once you join up with your colleagues, friends or acquaintances, it’s incredibly challenging to step out of your comfort zone and meet new people. The best thing to do is wave or give your friends a quick hug when you arrive, then say you’ll circle back to them. Feel free to find your group as the crowd thins out, but capitalize on your fresh energy at the beginning of an event to hit the Social Zone.
The Social Zone
This is where the most connections get made.
Sweet spots #1 and #2: Either end of the bar. By the time people are there, they’ll have gotten over those high-anxiety feelings from the Start Zone. Drinks in hand, guests leaving the bar area are ready to mingle, if not desperate for others to talk to. You become their savior if you rescue them from drinking alone. At our networking events, we noticed the people who collected the most business cards dominated these zones — and never ran out of people to talk to. Your opening line can be contextual: “How do you like the wine tonight?” Or just, “Hey, cheers! I’m Vanessa…”
Sweet spot #3: Right near the host. Once you have your drink, you can continue to work the room by saying a brief hello and thank you to the host. You can also ask her to introduce you around before she carries on greeting people. Try saying: “Thank you so much for having me! This looks like a great group. Anyone I should meet?”
After she’s introduced you, let her do her hosting duties — but if possible, stay in her line of sight. I do this when I don’t know many guests, because the host is more likely to see me while talking to someone and say, “Hey, you should meet my friend Vanessa. Vanessa, come over here!”
Subscribe to the Motto newsletter for advice worth sharing.
Sweet spot #4: While I don’t recommend standing around the food, hidden sweet spots are at the couches or bar tables where people are already eating. They’re often hoping for someone like you to set a plate down beside theirs. Something like, “Hey, can I join you while you eat?” works well.
Bonus: If you’re an introvert and don’t like big groups, I highly recommend being what I call a Grazer. Instead of hitting the buffet once for a heaping plate, go up first for appetizers, again for the main course and then again for seconds or dessert. Why? This is an easy way to step away from a conversation or move to a new one-on-one. I’m a Grazer myself. If I need a longer moment to myself, I’ll go to the bathroom and refill my drink, too. Taking breaks and conserving my social energy helps me carry on multiple quality conversations in one night.
Adapted from CAPTIVATE: The Science of Succeeding with People, by Vanessa Van Edwards, with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © Vanessa Van Edwards, 2017.