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Don’t Be the Wallflower: Approach Receptions With Curiosity, Courage and Confidence

By Connie English-

Receptions and parties can be excellent forums to meet and strengthen professional relationships and boost your career. Yet so many business people avoid these types of events like the plague. With sufficient forethought and preparation, attending a reception should be enjoyable and productive for even the most introverted person.

Last week I was reminded of how awkward some people feel at networking functions. The Darden Community Networking Reception is an annual event to facilitate interaction between local employers and job-seeking students… a win-win proposition. The turnout was wonderful – about 35 business people and 50 eager students were in attendance. I entered the space and chuckled to myself – the scene was akin to a sixth grade dance where the “girls” (in this case potential employers) were talking among themselves while the “boys” (the students here) were oblivious to the girls’ existence and interacted in their own comfort zone. Of course there were a few renegades who came with a purpose and were “flirting” with the other team, but the tension was palpable.

To mitigate this tension and awkwardness, and get the most out of a reception, three elements are necessary: Curiosity, Courage, and Confidence. When you approach an event with the curiosity surrounding who will be there, what you might learn from them and what they are up to, entering a room full of people becomes interesting rather than intimidating. If you do a little preparation, you’ll know who you would like to meet. Think of the crowd as an opportunity to learn something new and have the courage to approach people and ask questions. The French philosopher, Voltaire, astutely said “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Being prepared with educated relevant questions will make your conversations easier and more productive as well as leaving a good impression. People like to answer questions about what they’re working on or what’s important to them, and they enjoy questions that are easy to answer. Check out people on LinkedIn ahead of time to see what and who you might know in common. Preparedness tends to breed confidence. Confidence (not arrogance) allows one to make a good impression. When you believe in yourself, others will too.

Following the “three C’s” will put you at ease in a crowd. Your preparation and curiosity coupled with some courage and confidence takes away the intimidating aspects of a roomful of professionals who represent opportunity. Then you need to work the room. Don’t cling to those you already know. If you make a goal to speak with a couple of particular target individuals, breaking away from the comfort zone of your buddies will be easy.

“I see Dean Johnson over there and I really want to talk with him tonight,” is a good way to break from a group. Helping other people is also a great way to work a room. If someone you know wants to meet another attendee, offer to make the introduction. Being the connector puts you in a generous and gracious light for both parties and is very effective. Also, once you engage in conversation with a person, don’t dominate him or her. Use an open stance in a group – don’t box someone in by squaring up to them. Keeping a confident open angle in your stance is an invitation for others to join you – making new meetings possible. When looking for new people with whom to engage, go to the periphery of the crowd. If you notice someone standing alone, let your curiosity kick in – introduce yourself and ask questions. You’ll help put the other person at ease and may even become somewhat of a hero for “saving” him from the dread of not knowing how to interact at a reception.

With reunions, springtime industry conventions and meetings coming up, you’re sure to have an opportunity to attend a reception. Rather than thinking of all the reasons NOT to attend, think of what you might learn and gain from the people at the meeting. But don’t go unprepared. Do your research, set some goals and go have fun.

Don’t be the sixth grade wallflower – be the renegade willing to “flirt.”

The Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at Darden stands ready to help you in managing your career. For free one-on-one coaching, contact AlumniCareerServices@darden.virginia.edu.

Additional resources for preparing to attend a reception:

Connie Dato English (MBA ’91)
Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services