I did it. I went to a cocktail party where I didn't know anyone, and successfully chit-chatted for two hours. (Not to myself. I actually spoke with other people.)
I have never been good at the kind of networking where you're supposed to walk into a room full of strangers and walk out with "connections." The very idea makes me cringe. But as a writer and reporter, I get invited to more than my fair share of meet-and-greets. Every now and then, I read an invite and think, "Eeek. I really should go. But I won't know anyone." Sometimes I go, sometimes I don't. Some of these events are better than others. I rarely have fun.
The Secret to My Big Turnaround
These days, I'm actually looking forward to networking receptions. It's as if all these events are part of a big game, and I've finally figured out how to play.
Here's how I learned. Last month, as I was heading to a work-related cocktail hour with some my colleagues, I groaned that I hated having to introduce myself to a room full of strangers. Even though some of my co-workers were coming with me to this particular event, the whole point was for us to talk to people we hadn't met before.
Then one of my colleagues told me about the trick he uses: When he walks into a room alone, he looks for pairs of people who are talking, and introduces himself to each person.
I had always thought I was supposed to approach people who were by themselves. So I asked him: "If two people are talking already, why would I interrupt them?"
"Because everyone else is there to meet other people, too," he explained. He went on to explain that if you see a pair of people talking, the chances are that they arrived together and know they should be mingling. Or else they've just met and are, in the back of their minds, worried that they're going to end up talking to this one person all night. (You've just made it easier for one of them to exit.) Either way, they're relieved to see you. And your chances of having a decent conversation are better, because now you're talking to two people, not just one.
Consider the alternatives: Approaching one person makes it harder to extricate yourself. And if you can find absolutely nothing in common with that other person, you're sort of stuck, at least for a while. Plus, it's getting harder to approach someone who's alone, because self-conscious people who don't have anyone to talk to will stare into their phones and give off the 'I'm so busy' vibe--even if they want to mingle. Breaking into a knot of four or more people is really hard. So groups of two are your best bet.
It Works; It Really, Really Works
This is the bizarre thing. At the next cocktail party I went to, I had met only one person before. Since she was with the company that was hosting the event, I knew she wouldn't have time to talk to me. I took a deep breath, got a glass of wine, and looked for groups of two. I probably had a dozen conversations that night, some more comfortable than others. About half the people I spoke with offered me their cards, which, in the age of LinkedIn, is becoming more rare.
Then I went home, flopped on my bed, and thought, "I can't believe that worked." Try it for yourself and see.