I had the distinct honor of kicking off IASA 2016’s Career Skills Development track with Rex Bagwell of Salient CGRT, presenting an interactive session on networking entitled The Art of Networking: Tips, Tools, and Interactive Training. More than 100 conference attendees, ranging from first time attendees to experienced members of the IASA Management Team, joined Rex and I in preparation for the conference opening reception as we guided them through some of the pitfalls to avoid and best practices to adopt for networking success.
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While we covered a number of areas pretty quickly—including fallacies about whether introverts can be good networkers, mistakes people make at networking events, and ways to prepare for success—the section on which we received the most positive feedback was on how to read a room and determine which groups are open to new members joining them and which are engaged in more private conversations. Since this is so key to a successful networking event—the reception you receive on your first attempt at introducing yourself can largely determine how well the rest of the night goes—it’s no surprise that this became the key focus of our interactive practice at the end of our session. So for those unable to join us, let me share just a bit about open and closed groups.
Based largely on Chapter 4 of Andy Bounds’ 2007 bestseller The Jelly Effect: How to Make Your Communication Stick, reading the room at a networking event basically comes down to identifying groups of people who are “Open”—that is, they are standing and behaving in a way that invites new people to join—versus “Closed”—that is, they are more tightly spaced, making it unlikely that a new member would be welcome to join in the current conversation. Learning to identify open and closed groups is key to networking success, especially for those of us who tend to be more introverted, or those for whom that initial rejection can lead to shutting down, standing apart, or simply leaving the event.
While it’s much easier to demonstrate open and closed groups visually, the best way to imagine them is to picture two people in conversation. If they are standing close together, each facing directly toward the other, chances are they are having a private conversation—walking up and listening in or asking to join them could be seen as rude, or—even if they turn and allow you to join, there’s a good chance your presence will remain unwelcome. This is what Bounds would call a “Closed 2.” Now picture, instead, the same two people standing slightly further apart and not quite directly facing each other. They’re talking but also looking around at other people in the group, making eye contact and/or smiling at those nearby. This would be considered an “Open 2.” (For diagrams more clearly demonstrating the groups, you may view the session slides on SlideShare at http://bit.ly/IASANetwork2016)
This process works regardless of group size. A “Closed 3” would be three people forming a very close triangle, where joining into the group would require interrupting the conversation and forcing members of the group to reposition themselves in order to allow you to join. An “Open 3” would have those same three people more spread apart, and positioned in such a way that a fourth person could listen in or join without having to interrupt the natural flow.
This concept of reading the room and determining which groups to attempt to join may come natural to some people; but for me, it was one of the most eye opening concepts I’d ever learned on how to be a better networker, and why I originally proposed turning the content into a session with the CSD team. Based upon the number of people who came up to Rex and I throughout the conference who thanked us for sharing the information, and who said they had been using the open and closed concepts all week successfully, it would seem that I am not alone in benefitting from this education on body language and networking skills.
I’d like to thank the people who joined us for our networking seminar and those who asked us to do it again in 2017. Networking, as we all know, can make or break a career; learning better skills and becoming stronger networkers is definitely one career skill that everyone can benefit from improving, and I’m thankful to the Career Skills Development team for allowing me to be a part of helping others become stronger networkers.