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Shut Up and Start Talking

The Secret Science of Mingling

By Bull Garlington

Networking sucks. Everybody hates it. Trust me, the loudest, most gregarious person you know has a hard time walking into a room full of strangers and starting a conversation. I know this because I am the loudest person you know and when I’m forced to go network, a frigid column of fear plunges through me and I want to curl up under a table and wait for them to clear the room and shut the lights off so I can go home.

Which is weird because part of my job is public speaking and I am very often in a room full of strangers with the requirement that I … my God, I can barely say it … with the requirement that I engage in mingling.

Mingling Is Unnatural

For those people who would prefer to stay in their office with their headphones on getting work done instead of talking to strangers, and those who are terrified they’ll reach out to shake a stranger’s hand but instead stab them in the spleen, I got you.

As an extroverted introvert, I suffer from the worst of both worlds. I’m biverted. As much as I am liable to climb on a chair and street preach about comma use (there are witnesses), I’m just as likely to arrive at a press gig and stand against the wall hoping someone will come rescue me.

Even when I am the main speaker, I have to kick my anxious inner introvert in the ass so I can shake hands, make small talk and work the room before I climb on stage to pretend I’m not petrified.

I had to get over my panic to do my job, and I’m here with a list of proven behaviors and tricks that I have deployed in the field or brazenly pilfered from experts to get you over the hump.

Fear of mingling hits you with three distinct moments of pure terror: the approach, making small talk, and the graceful exit.

Caveat: I want you to know something it took years for me to learn: Nobody is looking at you. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture of a girl on the subway with a raven on her knee. No one is looking at her. The guy right next to her isn’t looking at her. This is true all the time, but it’s especially true when you’re at networking things. People are looking at their phones, over the shoulder of the person they’re talking to, at the food. They don’t even know you’re there. This is the warm protection of anonymity.

The Approach

The approach is the worst part. It’s terrible because you’ve been sweating over it for the entire Uber to the party and now you’re cowering on the sidewalk with your purse held up like a shield.

Do this:

Walk into the room

Don’t stop in the doorway. Don’t mosey. Walk in like you own the joint and target a destination. The bar is a great place to start, and so is the buffet. Walk right to it, tuck into a shrimp plate and chill.

Better yet, if you have a friend or a colleague in the room, you’ve got an in. Make that person your destination. Just stroll up to them and say, “What’s up?”

Pay Attention to how people flock together

The one-two-three technique is an internet favorite that instructs you to look for people in ones, twos or threes.

If two people are standing together you need a smidgen of reconnaissance: Are they facing each other? Then they’re in a conversation and you’ll be interrupting. Are they in a “V” formation? Then absolutely nothing’s happening and it’s more like they’re two nervous individuals secretly praying someone as charming as you will please come and interrupt them.

Three or more people together gets interesting and really taxes the ornithologist’s toolset: Are they in a “U” formation? That’s a horseshoe shape and it literally has an opening. Sidle up to the end of either leg of the horseshoe. No one is going to notice. As soon as there’s a natural break in the conversation, gently nudge your neighbor and say, “I missed the beginning of that, do you mind filling me in?”

If the group is in an “O” formation or a ring, then they’ve circled the wagons and you’re out. Don’t even try.

Rescue A loner

If all the wagons are circles, all the duos are facing each other, and you don’t know anyone in the room, look for someone standing alone. Unattached individuals are probably just as shy or reserved as you are and will welcome a rescue. Walk up, stick out your hand and say “Did you see the size of those shrimp?” It doesn’t matter what happens next. You’ve started a conversation. Maybe you end up talking about the new Marvel trailer or how the quality of green gummy bears has gone down in the last 10 years. You got it going, that’s what matters.

All Talk Is Small Talk

Which brings us to the second big nightmare of mingling: small talk. Now that you’ve got a target, you have to say something.

Probably the biggest fear here is the person you talk to doesn’t want to hear anything you have to say. Good news: You’re right. Better news: You’re wrong.

Nearly everyone’s at this gig for the same reason. If it’s networking, they’re in the room to get work. If it’s a cocktail party, they’re in the room to have a drink, hear a good joke and maybe get a phone number. But none of that happens if the two of you don’t start saying words at each other. So take a cue from an adorable 1980s movie: Say anything. Really, say any words in the world and, like a wizard casting a spell, an entire conversation will magically appear.

I know, you’re terrified you’re going to open your mouth and monkeys will fly out. I can assure you, science tells us there’s barely a 1 percent chance monkeys will fly out of your mouth. Words will. Words will tumble out in whatever order they wish, maybe even in the wrong order, and it just doesn’t matter. Once you’ve broken the ice, everything will flow naturally into a conversation.

You don’t believe me. Try this at the next networking meeting you’re at. Walk up to someone, stick out your hand, and claim “’Inception’ was a stupid movie.” It doesn’t matter if you believe such a ridiculous premise. A conversation will result.

Small Talk is Awesome

See, here’s the thing. You’re very smart. I know this because you passed your LSAT and the state bar and can put together a compelling brief.

Which means you probably hate small talk. It’s the bane of the intelligent. It’s the opposite of Socratic discourse. It’s stupid, churlish and a waste of time broadly condemned by the National Association of Cranky Curmudgeons. And you’re wrong. Small talk is vital.

Because you can’t open a conversation with, “Here’s why Umberto Eco’s assertions that 19th-century Parisian intellectual society could sustain varied beliefs in exoteric literature are utter balderdash.” I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why that won’t work. Most of all because you’re not wearing a monocle, but also because not everyone in the room has read “The Prague Cemetery.”

Small talk leads to big talk. And big talk won’t happen until you and the other person in the conversation are comfortable bringing out your respective lexicons of phenomenological catchphrases and postdoctorate gang signs.

They’re probably going to forget what you say

Small talk doesn’t even register in the mind. Think of it as wrapping paper for the gift of a great conversation. It’s shiny and has pictures of Marge Simpson on it and you’re going to ball it up, throw it away and play with whatever toy came out of the box.

But if you want to talk strategy with the in-house counsel of that little biopharma firm perched on the edge of everyone else’s business radar, then you’re gonna start by asking them about the weather. It’s not the important part of the conversation, so stop giving it so much power. Shut up and start talking.

You read the paper (I mean the internet, or Facebook, or Snapchat). You know what’s going down in the world. Talk about that [current news item] that [current late-night host] said was [adjective regarding quality].

The Dont’s

OK, I know I referenced an unforgettable John Cusack bon mot 10 paragraphs ago, but we’re grown-ups. You can’t literally say anything. You can’t start talking about your collection of celebrity belly button lint, and for God’s sake, don’t use the f-word.

And don’t talk about politics. Don’t talk about religion. Don’t talk about Steve in accounts receivable, even though everybody knows he stole your lunch last week.

Don’t be a sales bot. Don’t lead with your job description. Leave your elevator pitch in the car. Don’t, and I mean this — I will fight you on this — don’t try to sell anything.

Finish or Fade: The Architecture of the Exit

The third pain point of minglehood is getting out of the conversation you worked so hard to get into. You may find yourself now embroiled in a scintillating chat about telomeres shortening and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m mingling!” — and you are, and your father and I are so proud. However, there are good reasons why you need to leave.

You shouldn’t bogart someone’s time. Even if they are incredibly interesting, with an incendiary wit and a captivating old-world charm. Get out.

It’s even more important to cut off a great conversation than it is to cut off a bad one. I don’t mean cut someone off. Don’t be rude. But if the two of you really click, wait for a natural break and say you have to move on but you’d like to pick up this delightful conversation another day. Swap cards.

Of course, sometimes you end up in a dreadful conversation with someone who is dreadfully dreadful. Get out.

Don’t be rude (have I said this before?) but feel free to pull a fade if they’re boorish. When the conversation is meh and not going anywhere, there are proven departure strategies.

Use your wingman

This is the buddy system. First of all, let’s presume you have a wingman there. Second, you and your wingman are a party of two and can do a “V” formation to attract wandering minglers. Third, if you work out a signal, like jumping up and down or waving your arms over your head and hooting (yours may differ), then when you find yourself 17 paragraphs into an explanation of supply chain logistics required to move toner boxes from Westchester to Sault Saint Marie, Mich., you can deploy your secret sign like a shipwrecked Freemason and your wingman will swoop in and carry you to the bar.

Ask for their card

So simple. It’s why you’re here! But don’t be a jerk about it. If you say, “I’d love to hear more about grocery store bag patent law. Can I call your office later?” that’s their cue to hand you their card and your ticket to jet. But keep your word. Call them later. Or at least email.

Go get food

Gently interrupt with, “Hey, I’m hungry. I’m going to hit the buffet. Can I get you anything?” The universal answer to this is no. You walk away with no penalty.

Introduce them out

This is a great trick for passing someone off to someone else. If you know anyone nearby, just introduce them and excuse yourself. If you don’t know anyone, do it anyway. Look at any other person and say “I didn’t catch your name, have you met Marjorie?” Then run.

The graceful fade

Of course, someone might not be boorish or tiresome, yet you still have to get out of the conversation. Maybe you have a goal. Maybe you caught sight of a colleague. Just be gracious. Use manners. “Sean, I just saw someone I need to talk to. If I don’t run into you later on, it was very nice meeting you.”

Mingling might remind you too much of your first high school dance, but you can get over it. With practice and determination, you can finally fling yourself fearlessly into a function, walk right up to a V-formation of attorneys, stick out your hand for a shake, and say something like, “Hey guys, are the Cubs on a streak or what?” (They are not.)

Whatever it is, say it like a pro.

Do you suffer from fear of mingling? Are you a veteran with more tips? Please share about it in the comments below.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Bull Garlington Bull Garlington

An award-winning author, columnist and public speaker, Bull Garlington is the author of the books “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. His company, Creative Writer PRO, offers top-shelf content for small and medium-size businesses. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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