Robbie Samuels is a Boston-based events organizer and networking expert who has built a 2,400-member meetup group from scratch. It's not his first venture. In high school, in the Long Island town of Ronkonkoma, New York, he was a bagel sandwich entrepreneur. "I took orders the night before," he explains. He'd make the sandwiches at home and bring them to school the next day. 

So perhaps it's not surprising that one of his most enduring networking metaphors is based on the bagel. Surely you've been there: The party or networking event where a group of folks who already know each other stand in a sealed-off circle, preventing anyone else from joining their jokey little insiders' reunion.

As a rule, human bagels do not form at Samuels's events. Attendees stand in open, welcoming semicircle structures--like croissants--to encourage newcomers to join the conversation. In Samuels's experience, croissants have an astonishing, multiplicative capacity: Two or three can quickly become 12 or 24. Before you know it, everyone is chatting in croissant formations. "I've seen, in a group of 100 people, if only eight of them know [croissant-forming] behavior, the whole room gets transformed," he says. 

Metaphors and techniques like this are how Samuels has built a growing consultancy around what he calls "The Art of the Schmooze." His client list, which he has been building since 2009, includes AmeriCorps Vista, Marriott International, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Venture Café. Marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark devoted a section of her recently released book, Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It, to Samuels's techniques.

Here are five more networking tips Samuels teaches: 

1. Write your follow-up emails before the event. 

By typing out your "it was great to meet you" notes before you actually meet the person, you create for yourself a rough draft of what you'll say when you're face-to-face. For shy or introverted people, this is especially helpful: You won't stammer or struggle to make conversation, because you'll have already thought about--and written out--what you want to discuss. You'll also have a leg up when it comes to actually sending your follow-up notes. You can just revise them and hit Send, instead of drafting them from scratch. 

2. Pick out a particular community and become a regular. 

People who attend networking events sometimes "forget it's about building relationships, not just exchanging cards," says Samuels. 

But that doesn't mean you have to wait years for your new contacts to solidify and yield fruit. Samuels saw this play out in recent months as he aimed to expand his own marketing footprint into Boston's startup and tech communities. He attended three tech events within a month. "Soon enough, people start to recognize you," he says. Next thing he knew, he was hosting a training session at a Boston WeWork location. 

Like many networking tips, this idea is not complicated: Find the groups you want to network with, and keep showing up. Simple as that sounds, it's something most people don't do in their networking efforts. Instead, they'll attend a few random events a year--only because they received an invite and have nothing else going on that night. Samuels suggests forming a strategy, and becoming choosy about the events you attend. 

Think of it this way: If there's no one at an upcoming event worth writing a follow-up email to in advance, you shouldn't attend. And remember: "You aren't going to walk into a room and sell something that night," says Samuels. "It's about not starting from scratch, that third time around, when you've already proven you'll keep showing up."

3. Know what questions not to ask. 

We all have them: Subjects everyone asks about with kind intentions that nevertheless become monotonous because we discuss them everywhere we go. For example, a pregnant women might be tired of talking about it, especially with strangers, and especially at networking events. 

Likewise, even at networking events, it's easy to get annoyed at someone who too quickly asks you, "What do you do?" The question is almost always a downer, since (from a stranger) it seems to come from a place of cold ambition, rather than warm curiosity. It's also a question most of us have come to dislike, since we've been asked it so often--especially in socially unfamiliar situations. "In our attempts to engage others, we can really put them off, because we're not thinking about what it feels like to be asked the same question all the time," says Samuels. 

Samuels also discourages attendees from asking strangers about their names, skin color, hair, height, or accents. These questions, he says, are "not the same as connecting. It's not the time to say the first thing that pops into your head."  On the other hand, if you pay a compliment about what someone is wearing--sunglasses, scarves, jackets, jewelry--there's a strong chance you'll start off on a strong note. You're acknowledging a choice someone made, rather than mentioning a physical trait. "How did you hear about this event?" is another can't-miss opener. 

4. Close the conversation smoothly and move on. 

Disengaging from a conversation can be as difficult as starting one. Samuels's favorite getaway line is:  "I don't know that many people here. Is there anyone you think I should meet?" Of course, for this exit to work, you'll have had to reveal something about your profession--or reason for attending the event--to whomever you're speaking to. This segue can help you end a conversation, whether you've hit it off with someone or the chatting has quickly dead-ended. "It gives you the chance to make someone else feel like a connector," says Samuels. 

5. Make the regular attendees be croissants, not bagels. 

If you're organizing an event, instruct the regulars you know to stand in open croissant structures, not walled-off bagels. Samuels takes it one step further. He pulls aside anyone who has attended the meetup more than three times and tells them that, for the first hour, they can only interact with people they don't know. A rule like this goes a long way toward preventing bagel formations. 

You can also "game" the socializing with declarative name tags. At Samuels's events, attendees wear tags reading "I'm looking for..." and "Ask me about..." The result? More easy ways to start a conversation. 

Samuels calls this the difference "between inviting and welcoming."

Published on: May 6, 2015