Commanding a room without being a threat (or: A quick guide to successful networking this holiday season)

We’ve all been to events where we end up holding on to our drink all evening in silence, while trying not to look all too bored. I know I felt that way at an annual association conference in Boston, where the networking event included about 1,000 guests. The bright lighting in the conference space allowed for little intimacy during conversation, loud background noise meant that you almost had to shout at each other and I was tired from a long day of breakout sessions. 

Wouldn’t it be great if on those nights, we would have a toolbox handy of signals to display, so that people came to approach us? Then read on!

1. Adapt a state of acceptance

Human beings instinctively stay away from people they don’t know, from anything that is unfamiliar. That’s why in small talk we try to establish some sort of a connection by going through the basic questions of:

“Where are you from?” and 

“What do you do for work?”

If you are lucky, you are somewhat familiar with the company your conversation partner works for or have been to their home town: “You are from Berlin? Me too!”. If not, dig on - maybe you are cheering for the same sports team or have kids the same age?

We do our best to uncover something familiar, as we immediately feel more at ease with the person we are talking to. Why? Because, according to Mark Bowden, we all long to be accepted into a tribe (the tribe of people from Ottawa! The tribe of Tottenham fans! The tribe of mothers!). So: The best way to command a room at a networking event is to show that you “accept everything”. No matter what their background is, people can feel comfortable in conversation with you, unthreatened by your judgement. 

A great way to get yourself into this state of acceptance is through positive self-talk. Before walking into that room, get yourself excited by repeating things like this in your head (Don't feel awkward. We all self-talk in one way or another.):

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2. Reflect acceptance in your body language 

Now that you feel all energized and positive, how can you signal that to others? The way you carry yourself is vital in making others feel accepted and therefore drawn to you. 

  • Open up your belly and chest area to the audience or room;

Exposing the soft area of your belly makes you vulnerable and is therefore perceived as a non-threatening and inviting body posture

  • Stand tall, don’t crouch;

This lengthens your upper body, again highlighting your belly area. This posture also shows confidence and increases your “status”, which people find attractive (people try to increase their own status through association with others of status).

  • Keep your hands around your naval;

Hold your drink around the height of your naval and gesture horizontally from your naval when you talk. You can observe this gesture when watching TV presenters or other public speakers - this is a trust inspiring posture, as it puts focus on your vulnerable stomach area and at the same time displays calm and confidence. Having your hands in your pocket or hanging down your sides makes you look sluggish and tired, whereas holding your hands in front of your chest can appear as too passionate or aggressive. 

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  • Slight tilt of your head, smile and gentle nod;

This, together with eye contact, shows your conversation partner that you are listening. The feeling of being TRULY listened to, without being interrupted and without the conversation partner constantly prepping their next answer in their head instead of actually listening, makes people feel like a million dollars. Listening shows people that you take them seriously and care for their opinions (which increases their status and causes a feeling of comfort in the person you are speaking to).

3. Show acceptance through your language

In conversation with new contacts, we often try to establish our status. Consciously or subconsciously, we like to showcase a certain amount of knowledge or expertise and want them to know that we could be a great resource to them. This causes us to state opinions, maybe even counterarguments to what we hear in conversation - but contradicting who we are speaking to is an “attack” on their status and can lead to our conversation partner wanting to leave our chat. 

But think about this: really, what is your goal when you are meeting someone for the very first time at a networking event? You want the person you are meeting to feel comfortable around you and at ease in conversation with you. This is the first foundation you need to lay for a relationship of trust. When you send your follow-up email the next day, you don’t want the new contact to think “Oh, it’s Mr. Know-it-all, what does he want now?”, but rather “Hey, that’s this super nice guy I was talking to yesterday!”. 

So during the networking event, it doesn’t matter if you really do or don’t agree with what you are hearing - you can establish yourself as an expert later on. For now, it’s all about raising their status and comfort level. So, say things like:

“Wow, that’s interesting!” or

“You are right, I haven’t thought of this yet.”

“Absolutely!”

And of course, to learn as much as you can about your potential new customer, ask open-ended questions that lead to longer answers and deeper conversation. 

There is more than only body language that goes into successful networking, such as researching the attendees of the event beforehand, learning about the industry in advance and setting yourself a goal for yourself (what is it that you wish to find out? Who do you hope to meet?). But even the best research won’t be useful if attendees don’t feel physically attracted to you and comfortable in your presence. So give this a try!