Say hello, wave goodbye

23 September 2010
Today is the CIPS annual conference and a great chance for networking. But meeting new people at the breaks can be a fraught business, so here are some tips for meeting people and getting rid of them. When interviewing candidates for journalism jobs, I always ask them this: "You are at a conference, you don't know anybody, it is the coffee break and you are confronted by a sea of unfamiliar faces. What do you do to make sure you speak to enough people to produce a story?” I admit it’s a tricky question, and intentionally so because it evokes a fear we all have at events – that of being left high and dry with nobody to talk to. Of course, it happens to us all at some time, and the sense of unease is heightened when you are new to the job. So what is the answer? I once saw a brilliant training session by Christopher Barrat about how and when to introduce yourself – and, crucially, when not to. If you see another lone wolf, you're in luck – they will be equally desperate to find a buddy to talk to. Go for them. But if there are no singles, the key is to understand the body language of the pairs (or groups) you're attempting to infiltrate. A tight huddle – no chance, they are probably deep in conversation and won't welcome interruption. More welcoming configurations include people standing in a line, rather than a circle: you can pick off one of the people standing at the end. Then there is the loose huddle, a group in which some members have opened their bodies to the room. They are saying: "I am open to other interlocutors.” A carefully measured introduction should get you in there. You may, of course, be faced with the opposite problem – trying to get rid of somebody you are talking to. Again, this does happen if the conversation of mutual interest has run its course. There are two main ways to "offload" somebody. Introduce them to a third person and shortly thereafter make your excuses, leaving the two of them together. Or mutter something about more coffee and walk off towards the catering. Yes, they may follow you, but the chances are they have also realised the interaction has become exhausted and will welcome the chance to end it gracefully. If they really don't the message, you may have to resort to the loo. And if they follow you in there, you may have an altogether different problem.
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