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15 Tips To Master The Awkward Networking Waltz

What does the invention of the sewing machine and ballroom dancing etiquette have to do with professional networking? Plenty.

The Network Event

Let's begin with a story of our time. Joe is a recently unemployed IT specialist who is a whiz at network infrastructure. O irony of ironies. He is about to attend a meeting of a local professional group to "network" with people who might help with his job search. He has 500+ LinkedIn contacts and he tweets every day, but let’s watch him as he tries to mix and mingle.

Needless to say, he is not looking forward to this at all. Joe creeps into a room full of people who are standing around, talking in groups of twos and threes. They all seem to know each other—unlike himself. Joe spends some time at the buffet, picks up a brochure and feigns interest. He almost approaches someone standing on his own but settles for getting a drink instead. Looking for comfort, he takes out his iPhone, checks his email and Twitter messages. He then walks around a bit nibbling on some peanuts. After 45 minutes he can’t bear it any longer. He leaves, having wasted his evening and feeling unsatisfied, unfulfilled, and undiscovered.

The Sewing Machine and the Polka

Enter Elias Howe, the 19th-century inventor of the sewing machine and the zipper. What could Joe possibly learn from Howe? Quite a bit it seems; because Elias Howe knew a lot about people as well as technology. Turns out that, in addition to being a fine inventor, Howe cut a fine figure in the ballroom and he knew a thing or two about how to behave in social situations. Which is important today, because research confirms that the extent of your real professional social network can have a significant impact on your promotion prospects and your salary.

A recent study of 6,000 executives at 3,000 companies in the U.S. and Europe found that executives with 50% more professional contacts above the average, had a salary 3.5% or $15,000 higher than their less gregarious/friendly/sociable colleagues. So the conclusion seems simple: increase your professional contacts and get a raise. Hundreds of contacts on LinkedIn and Facebook? That’s a no-brainer. But creating "real" contacts is not as easy as it sounds.

About 20 years ago, anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar posited that the number of social connections we maintain is limited not by technology, but by our brain size. Extrapolating from a study on primates, Dunbar estimated that the maximum number of social connections we can actively maintain is approximately 150, in what came to be known as "Dunbar’s Number." While this number is not universally accepted, most social scientists agree that the upper limit on meaningful social connections is still in the hundreds, at most.

Can Technology Help?

In 1990 the Berlin Wall was finally down and Windows was going up. We connected by email shortly afterwards; today we have hundreds of connections on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. But more connections do not mean more meaningful relationships. Sherry Turkle, psychologist and MIT information researcher confirms this when she says that, "we live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection."

So technology is not the (only) answer. No, to create meaningful connections, we need to rediscover the ways humans have connected since time immemorial. This means talking to real people, which, among other things means approaching people at networking events, conferences, and trade shows. Many people find this artificial, embarrassing, and just plain scary. If this sounds familiar, read on.

Mind Over Manners

Like professional athletics, social networking is a lot about attitude and mental preparedness. So here are some time-proven strategies for getting over the fear, uncertainty, and doubt preventing you from meeting people in business-networking situations:

  1. Understand that networking is not "selling yourself" or self-promotion—it is about developing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with professional colleagues.
  2. Understand that you do not have to change your personality to succeed—turning yourself into a pushy salesperson won’t work. Networking has to be authentic. You can and should be yourself.
  3. Get over rejection—tell yourself that a turndown is your counterpart’s loss, not yours. Besides, recent research demonstrates that people overestimate the likelihood of rejection anyhow.

The Rhythm of Life

Whenever people gather together in a room, known social patterns emerge; patterns which often have well-defined rules. Some are unwritten and can only be learned from the "invisible teacher" (also known as "the way things are done"). But long before the Internet, people turned to etiquette teachers and social guidebooks for written networking advice. One such guide was published in 1858 by our sewing machine inventor friend Elias Howe, whose "An American Ballroom Companion: Handbook for Ballroom Etiquette" provided valuable advice for 19th-century "Joes." And so from the ballroom in one elegant glide to the meeting room and all you need to know to work a room with grace.

One Two Three, One Two Three

Start networking before attending the event.

  1. Start with an event where it will be particularly easy to meet people, for example a speed networking event where short three- to five-minute meetings are pre-arranged. Meeting people this way will help build your confidence.
  2. Warm up before the show—reach out to see who will be attending the event and set up appointments to meet. Most conferences today publish a list of attendees prior to the show via event-specific social networks, mobile apps, or Facebook pages.
  3. Change your mindset from "I hate working the room with strangers" to "I like meeting people."

Read the Room—Kindly

When you arrive at the event, survey the landscape and create a plan for how to work the room.

  1. Apply the 1-2-3 rule—people at events tend to congregate in groups of ones, twos, and threes. Approach the "ones" first. They are people just like yourself, shy to engage with others; they will be the most welcoming. Twos and threes are more difficult to approach, but read on.
  2. Look for Twos Standing in a V Formation—when two people are standing in an open V formation, they are usually open to others joining their discussion. Avoid people standing directly across from each other; this indicated they are engaged in a closed conversation.
  3. Use the ballroom waltz trick for joining a closed group of two—follow this advice for "breaking in" to talk to someone you know. Approach the other person he is speaking to and ask permission from him to join. For an elegant example, check out how Ralph Feinne’s does this in the movie The English Patient in this video. (The action happens at 1:06.)

  4. Use the O or U Rule for groups of three or more—a group of people standing in a circle is the hardest to join. Look for groups arranged in a U formation.
  5. Be professional in men/women interactions—professional is not flirtatious and flirtatious is not professional. Decide which one you want.

Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk

How you present yourself projects a lot more about yourself than you may realize.

  1. Stand tall, smile, and say something friendly and intelligent—follow your mother’s advice and don’t slouch. For more on this, view social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s excellent TED video on the significance of body language.
  2. Act like the host—introduce people to each other. Acting as an agent for others removes some of the self-consciousness of social interactions.
  3. Pay it forward—help your counterpart; helping people builds trust and belief. The most useful thing you can say in a social-professional setting is, "Is there anything I can do for you?"
  4. Be bold—blaze your own trail. Take a chance. Mimic Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In response to Elizabeth’s expression of horror at the thought of Collins approaching a social superior without an introduction, he replies, "Indeed I am. I shall entreat his pardon for not having done it earlier." If Collins could do this in the rigid rules of 1800s social etiquette, you can certainly do it in 2013.

So go and meet the folks knowing that the real reasons are not to increase your chances of getting a job, get a raise or build social capital—all of which are benefits found in Berardi’s and Seabright’s research. The real reason is this; nobody’s heart was ever warmed by the glow of a screen like the way it is by chatting to a live person, and people talking to people has always been the way business gets done.

David Lavenda is a technology strategist for an enterprise software company in the collaboration and social business space. Susan Fisher is Principal at First Class, a communication, leadership, talent development consultancy, and training organization. Follow her on Twitter at @susan1stclass

[Image: Flickr user Andrea Parrish - Geyer]

Add New Comment


  • Great points! One thing I’d add is that apart from achieving business/professional related goals – networking with peers who are NOT in the same field as you is a good way of getting some inspiration & getting out of your comfort zone. As in –– “(…)the deeper purpose of networking – It isn’t just to generate exposure, or find potential business leads; it is also about creating a network of diverse individuals that you can learn from, and exchange ideas with.”

  • seanhumby

    Fabulous article - full of great advice. Love the video and great to see literary classics being quoted.

  • Joe

    Interesting .... but a bit simplistic. You might have suggested instead of trying to get a job or a business referral - approach everyone with the intent of helping THEM. It's not an immediate payout but has long term returns.

  • Bube

    Very very good tips here..but being the introvert I am, I still feel this is the easy part in networking. The harder part for me is holding a conversation after the initial greetings :/

  • Michael Hopkins

    Find a subject to which you can tie every conversation that interests you -- the kind that makes your eyes light up when someone mentions it. And, have a group or organization to which you are always trying to interest people and raise awareness, but which is not your own business so won't seem sleazy. Bonus: you will begin to be regarded as an expert in this area your organization will get more attention, and yes, you will get more business.

  • Susan Fisher

    Right on. Become a connector/helper/expert/ in your industry, sector or town. That way you genuinely have things to talk about with lots of people - with minimum self-interest.

  • Lionnel Yamentou

    To get you started keeping the conversation after the initial greeting, ask simple open ended questions to get the person talking about his interest. One of my favorites is "What's your story?"
    I recommend the book How to Make Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. One of the key lessons from that book is: "To be interesting, you have to be genuinely interested."

  • Lisa - Good.Co

    How true! So frequently these days, we forget that interacting with other human beings is a vital component of our social and mental well-being, not just a means to an end. Sometimes, a helpful guiding principle is to try picturing yourself as someone you'd like to meet and interact with, and let that image influence (but not dominate) your approach. Not only can this serve as a useful guide to your behaviour, it can give a leg-up to your confidence. Not only are you putting your best foot forward, but by taking a slightly more objective approach, you give yourself enough of a remove to make handling rejection even easier.
    Thanks for the great tips!