Working a room was never everyone's cup of tea, and the introverts among us are constantly dreading the hand-shaking and small talk of events with strangers. And now research says, young people are generally getting even worse at face-to-face interaction. "If you're a digital native, you should be aware that the Internet may have partially re-wired your brain in such a way that when you meet people face to face, you're less capable of figuring out what they're thinking," John Mullen recently wrote on the HBR blogs, citing a handful of fairly alarming studies.
So if you're a young entrepreneur more comfortable updating your social networks or pouring over your business plan than schmoozing at parties, what's to be done? With in-person networking a necessity for any would-be business owner, you can't just recede into cyberspace. You need to work on your ability to mingle.
Develop empathy, especially if the thought scares you. Commit to spending two weeks without using your cell phone. And without texting and tweeting. Do all of your communications by planning in advance and by meeting up with people and doing face-to-face interactions. If you can't do that for two weeks to a month, seriously fix that, because it is simply the case that the way human beings are wired, the way relationships get formed is face to face. Relationships do not get formed textually. Very shallow relationships do, but the people you're going to depend on for big breaks are going to be people you have relationships with and not necessarily the people you tweet with all the time. Even if you don't use it very often, you need the skill set of empathetic face to face interaction if you want to be a long-term success.
But if that sounds like a bit too daunting a treatment for your taste (or your level of in-person jitters), there are other options. MIT Sloan's Improvisations blog, for example, recently offered 10 tips to work a room like a pro from Ellen Keiley, a member of the law firm K&L Gates, and Richard J. DeAgazio, the former president of Boston Capital Securities. Among them:
Review the guest list in advance, if you can. The event coordinator is the person to ask.
Prepare a brief description of yourself to use when introducing yourself.
Put your name tag on your upper right lapel, which is where people lean into when they shake your hand.
Ask open-ended questions, even the basic "how did you learn about this event?" Be a good listener.
Approach guest speakers before their talks, when they're less likely to be surrounded.
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel