insight magazine

10 Tips for Reading a Room the Right Way

Here’s how to turn new names and faces into powerful business connections. By LISA WILDER | Winter 2018

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Whether he said it or not, a famous quote attributed to D-Day planner and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower may help you shape your networking strategy: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Here’s the point. In the accounting and finance profession, the end of the calendar year presents unique opportunities for making connections and building business. Potential clients may be getting restless with their current advisors and may be open to new ideas. And, in fairness, your clients might be doing the same. And, there’s you — there’s something about a fast-approaching new year that makes us consider where we are in our careers and whether better opportunities lie elsewhere.

So, how do you successfully blend good business with good fun as you accept invitations to late-year conferences, holiday mixers, and gatherings with clients, peers, or prospects? A little planning — from thinking about the people you want to meet to the way you present yourself — can go a long way in making meaningful connections.

From the invitations you consider to the way you work the room, consider these top networking tips from our trusted business consultants Alison Henderson of Moving Image Consulting LLC and Jon Lokhorst, CPA of Lokhorst Consulting:

1. Know why you’re going.

If you want your networking time to be more valuable than a free drink and hors d'oeuvres, really think about the event, the logistics, the vibe, and who’s likely to be there. While there’s potential in most professional gatherings no matter your goal, Henderson and Lokhorst suggest it makes sense to study the names of the hosts, presenters, officers, and any other faces involved in the event ahead of time to fully formulate what you can gain from the event.

2. Reconnaissance is essential — and easy.

Even if you only have the names from the invitation, make sure you look them up on their employer websites or review their public profiles on Google, LinkedIn, and other professional groups. But don’t “connect” just yet. This is research for when you walk into a room full of strangers. “Knowing” these people at least gives you a chance to seek them out to thank them for their work, and then you’re off and running — appreciation is always a good conversation starter.

3. Arriving on time is always better.

From the grade school lunchroom to the corporate ballroom, some things in life always stay the same: “It’s better to be the person already active with others in a busy room than the last person walking in and wondering where to fit in,” Henderson says. On-time arrival gives you a clear path to mingle, and Henderson points out that people are most open to meeting others as they arrive together rather than when they’re settled into established conversations or groups.

4. Body language is important.

Henderson works with professionals who run meetings both big and small and says similar physical cues and stances can work in networking events. Being “open,” as she says, always means an upright posture and eyes up and engaged, but in a networking setting, she’d add one other important detail — correctly judging physical space. Events can get crowded, and as you’re greeting someone you’ve never met with a handshake, “it’s important to extend your hand the whole way” to respect their space.

5. Make it about the other person.

“If you’re going into any room cold where you don’t know the people, be open and neutral in your speech and stance and work on eye contact without being too creepy about it,” Henderson notes. It’s not about being a “party” persona but your authenticity and approachability — give people an idea of what it’s like working with you.

6. It’s a party, not a pitch (Part 1).

“Pressing a card into someone’s hand isn’t where you start. I think today it’s much more important to be interested than interesting,” Lokhorst says. Lokhorst’s tip is to listen carefully as you walk the room to find “one or two people who are really interesting to listen to.” Going along with tip number five, “being curious and interested in someone else can be much better self-promotion than talking strictly about yourself,” he says.

7. It’s a party, not a pitch (Part 2).

Part of the benefit of knowing at least a few attendees ahead of time is having the opportunity to develop a few open-ended questions that will let them talk about themselves or their business outlooks. “It’s also good to have a few good stories about yourself,” Henderson says. Have at the ready a quick and relaxed storyline that tells the other person who you are and what you and your team can do.

8. Business cards still have a place.

Lokhorst warned above that leading into a conversation with a business card exchange is passé, but short of a photographic memory, it’s still the most important tool to have at one’s disposal when the conversation needs to continue another time. That said, women should strategize where to stash their business cards. “You need a specific pocket for business cards where you can smoothly offer one if there’s an opportunity. Women’s apparel doesn’t always have enough pockets, so that’s worth thinking about when you dress for an event,” Henderson says.

9. Know when to go.

Knowing when to leave a party is important but so is knowing when to cut the mingling short. The purpose of a networking event is to have meaningful conversations with more than one or two people. Henderson and Lokhorst suggest developing a tactic for comfortably ending or exiting a conversation without making others feel abandoned, whether it be “seeing” an imaginary person across the room that you just have to say hello to or a simple “excuse me.”

10.Have a speedy follow-up plan.

Whether you walk away with one good contact or several, Lokhorst says that reconnecting within 24-48 hours is key to keeping the conversation going. His tactic almost always involves a real thank-you note (yes, a mailed one) that contains an invitation to continue a specific aspect of the conversation so there’s an uninterrupted train of thought if the other party agrees to speaking or getting together again.

A final point; don’t forget your friends. While a big part of networking is about making connections that benefit you, it’s also important to connect your contacts with each other. Henderson stresses you should never underestimate the power of doing someone a favor. If you have a trusted friend or colleague who might be a better fit for anything your new contact is looking for or needs help with, be generous and offer their name or service. If both sides of that connection benefit, that means two people owe you a solid. And therein lies the power of networking.