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How to Work the Room

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So you’ve got your engineering degree, and your marquee MBA, and a business-plan. You’re on your way. But at some point you’re going to have to ‘grace’ your way through an important networking or social event. How you handle this matters–probably more than you care to admit.
Anyone who has attended a Silicon Valley networking event can attest to the fact that “Social Graces” often elude us founders. But if we were “hacking” or “grocking” our way to better methods of networking, the user manual would be 10 inches thick! There is such a thing as “Social-Business Protocol.” Not all of us in the startup universe are born with it, we can all _learn_ it. So, here are my *10 tips for founders en route to the power-party circuit.*

*1. Be more of a host and less of a guest.*
“Susan Roane”: and “Letitia Baldridge”: say there are two types of people at a party: hosts and guests. People like hosts more because they make introductions, and make people more comfortable. Guests tend to need attention and maintenance. Susan wrote the ageless book “How to Work a Room”: and Letitia wrote “Executive Manners”:

*2. Avoid permanently joining a “rock pile.”* A rock pile is a pack of people in a tight circle. It’s natural to huddle because it makes us feel safe, but it borders on anti-social.

*3. Dress for the party.* The more junior you are, the better you should dress. I always try to dress up because of my lower-than-average IQ. On the other hand, an advanced networking strategy is to show up severely under/over-dressed. If you’re caught off guard with an impromptu invite, execute under-dressed (aww shucks) “Mark Zuckerburg’s Adidas flip-flop routine”:

*4. Don’t “hotbox”.* Hotboxing is squaring the shoulders front and center to one person. In groups one person will often “hotbox” the target/VIP of the group. Hotboxing in a one-on-one conversation is OK, but it excludes others from joining.

*5. Put your coat and bag down.* Your coat is non-verbal communication that you: *a)* need a shield; *b)* just got there; *c)* don’t trust the host’s coat check; *d)* are not healthy enough to keep your body at 98.6; *e)* are imminently about to leave. Women can be forgiven for keeping a purse, but it’s a networking sin for a man to keep a ‘man-purse’ (i.e. backpack, tote- or laptop-bag).

*6. Mentor someone about your–or your company’s–core competence.* Since Duck9 educates college students about FICO scores and debt minimization, I have networking talking points on FICO scores and the urban legends that surround them. It transitions nicely from the what-do-you-do-for-work question. It also adds some substance to party conversations and clearly brands you as a person. I’m the duck dude, with the magnet for a card, that does credit education.

*7.Don’t forget to get mentored as well.* A great guy I know has one rule for social-professional success: *his party goal is to learn three new things at every event.* It is very effective. He tilts his head like my shih tzu and gets all sorts of credit for being a great listener.

*8. Be a good host while you’re someone else’s guest.* Say ‘Hi’ to wall flowers. I once saw a tier-1 celebrity work the fringe of the room. He must’ve said ‘Hi’ to 12 wallflowers. Actors don’t get paid
to act, they get paid to promote. As entrepreneurs, we better promote ourselves by being gracious to everyone. This means making introductions, too. Introduce a junior person to a senior person. Include one positive snipet about both as you do so: “Sarah, I’d like to introduce Hazel, she started Fashion4 and also leads the “Ladies Who Launch” here in Silicon Valley. Hazel, this is my friend Sarah whom I told you about from…” (“Letitia Baldridge”: has an entire chapter on this.)

*9. Managing the party host.* When you’re interacting with the host, ask simple questions requiring a ‘Yes/No’ response. I’ve heard disastrous questions in a vain attempt to out alpha-male the host. The best questions to ask of a host are upbeat, light and fluffy. If you want to be Mike Wallace/Chris Matthews with a hardball question, tread lightly. Also, help your host wiggle by wrangling them away from guests who are monopolizing or “hotboxing” them. They will thank you later.

*10. Always, always, always: Thank the host before you leave.*

These are some of the basics of good networking. One *bonus tip* for when you are havng a hard time at an event: play *’Convo Bingo’.* Make a list of ‘bingo’ words in your head and every time you hear a word on your list,cross it off. This will force you to listen intently and actively drive the conversation towards your “bingo words.” It also makes you a better audience to other guests. A sample bingo card is available “here”:

14 Responses to “How to Work the Room”

  1. Thank you for quoting my book, How To Work a Room®, and me. You hit some of the salient points that will be helpful to those who find a room full of people to be daunting. We must also remember to be ourselves and think about other people’s comfort and that helps us refocus and be in the moment.

    Susan RoAne

  2. Great tips. Could have used them in my shy geek career.

    Here are a few of my favorites for happy, stress-free socializing:

    o Never arrive empty-handed. Even a small gift helps the host feel appreciated, and gives you something to do when arriving, rather than standing with finger in nose. Plus, if you bring something you like, you might get some later! My favorite: European-style drinking chocolate!

    o Strive to be interestED, no interestING. It’s harder to do the former (read: “turn off ego and agendas”) but it gets you to the right attitude, which is:

    o Always come curious! Genuine curiosity is extremely empowering, and is the best thing to help someone open up (esp. us geeks). This means you have to:

    o Be a passion detective: Everyone has something they’re excited about – gaming, chocolate, movies, or the latest innovations in wound care (hey – my wife’s a nurse). Your job, Mr. Phelps, is to find that out. It may take work, and liberal application of great questions (plus maybe alcohol) but it’s *very* satisfying to see someone light up. Bonuses: They WILL remember you, and you’ll now have a terrific sense of what her interests, which means you can keep an eye out down the road for ways to help her [1] – essential to forming relationships, which is essential to getting *your* work spread in the world.

    o Finally, have a stock set of interested questions that work with anyone, something like “What do you do?”, “What do you like about your work?”, and “What are you reading?” And make sure you THINK ABOUT THE ANSWER. *Every* job has interesting aspects.

    [1] See “How to help people” ( for the basic cycle:

    1. When meeting someone, come with an attitude of genuine curiosity.
    2. Maintain a steady, reliable, and valuable atom/bitstream
    3. When you come across something of potential value, share it

  3. adambenayoun

    That’s where most of the Old Schools _Geek_ entrepreneurs fails. Today it isnt enough to have a good product (or good developers’ founders), you need to be able to market the product and market your team by successfully networking with other entrepreneurs and potential investors. Networking can also bring you potential cooperations.}

  4. themaroon

    Great tips. Most of these I’ve thought of consciously, but a few I’ve sort of noticed and not been able to verbalize so precisely.}

  5. leecourtney

    Be a Dave Packard rather than a Bill Gates – show an interest in the person, not just what that individual can do for you. You know the usual – family, kids, hobbies (you do have a hobby other than work, don’t you?), vacations, politics…}

  6. Great Tips. I often go to a parties where 90% of the people are twice my age – very accomplished. Somehow i always look for people of my age to hang around with and so true, it does make me comfortable. I would always think how to make best of these parties and now i have some direction – try (aim) to learn something new and be a shih tzu.}

  7. cfinlayson

    This is great, but how to I find out about/get in invited to networking events? Do I have to network on my own in order to get invited to networking events? I am new to the value and am still used to unfriendly Los Angeles.}

  8. These are *great* tips. I realized a couple of years ago that I am always more comfortable when I’m able to convince myself I am a host rather than a guest.

    Another tip I’d add is to look for people who seem more uncomfortable than you, then go talk to them.}