Some of my best business connections have been made out of the office, over food and drink. One was made at a backyard BBQ, while I was pushing kids on swings and holding onto a juice box. (So glamorous!) Another time, a casual cocktail party suddenly became nerve-wracking when a prominent Silicon Valley executive insisted I take the seat next to him.

Many people get nervous before social events, but cocktail parties and networking receptions can yield huge opportunities for entrepreneurs. Here are some tips to help bring out your inner schmoozer.

Before you go:

  • Do the mental prep work. Spend a few minutes thinking about where you will be and what you want to accomplish. How should you dress? Do you have business cards? Will you need a host or hostess gift? Who is on the guest list?
  • Dress for the occasion. Be sure you don’t have pet fur on the back of your trousers or a hem that’s come loose. Try to resist wearing that “classic” black suit yet again. Personally, I opt for bright clothes that are tasteful yet memorable.
  • Minimize anxiety. Give yourself plenty of time to drive and park, check your hair and makeup, catch (and check) your breath before joining the party. Pocket a few business cards and small mints so they’re at your fingertips.
  • Compose your pitch. Instead of preparing a formal elevator pitch, think of one simple sentence that will get people's attention. Mine is “I save the sanity of marketing managers.” Who can resist asking what that means or how I do it?


During the event:

  • Fake it. Relax, smile and make eye contact.
  • Have something to talk about. Who won the big game? Who just reported a great quarter? How do you know the host?
  • Stake out territory near the food. Everyone will pass by sooner or later.
  • Make the first move. Look for someone who is alone and introduce yourself with “Hi, my name is ....”  Dale Carnegie wrote: Learn a person’s name and then use it over and over again because it helps us remember the name, and because everyone loves to hear their own name.   
  • Don’t turn the cocktail party into a Cirque du Soleil act. Hold your beverage or food plate in your left hand, leaving your right hand dry and free to shake hands or accept a business card. Sometimes, it’s preferable not to eat and drink at the same time, as this requires a high degree of skill to master gracefully. Are you hungry for food or hungry for business?
  • Work the crowd and meet as many people as possible. Sow your business card far and wide, and collect as many as you can. If you are ready to move on, simply say, “I’ve really enjoyed meeting you.” Then shake hands and step away.
  • Keep it professional. This means if you drink, only have one. Don’t go elbow-to-elbow with the person who drinks single-malt scotch or extra-dry vodka martinis. Do not gossip or share confidential information. This isn’t the time to engage in discussions that may alienate potential prospects. Sex, religion, politics? Don’t even go there.
  • Keep it clean. Or try to. Inevitably, something will spill on your clothing or your sleeve will end up in the dipping sauce. If you carry a purse or a business bag, I highly recommend carrying a Tide Stick to remove most any kind of stain on the spot (pun intended). Otherwise, lift your chin, smile and get on with your business. You aren’t the first one with red wine decorating a white shirt, and you won’t be the last.

After:

  • Thank the host on your way out.
  • Jot notes on the back of business cards so you can remember the people you just met as well as any follow-up needed.
  • The next day, add your new connections on LinkedIn, being sure to mention the event in the invitation.
  • Say "thank you" again. If the party was held in a home, send a short, handwritten thank you to the host, mentioning a new contact made or special dish you enjoyed.

Last, congratulate yourself on getting out there. Some of the most profitable and rewarding connections are made when you least expect it. The more you socialize and network, the easier it will be to attract prospects and make magical connections.