Schmoozing 101

I often speak with clients about the virtues of hosting open houses, annual celebrations, and other events that bring people into closer contact with their organizations. And I’ve come to recognize a particular panic surrounding these occasions: some people are afraid that they won’t know what to say or how to act once the guests arrive.

This is not an unusual worry. In fact, I once worked at an organization that held a major annual event with over 500 guests. One year, a few weeks before the big celebration, the C.O.O. asked me to lead a staff training on “Schmoozing 101.” And so I did: it was like a one-hour finishing school for socially anxious middle-aged people. I’m not sure it helped my colleagues back then – despite my best efforts, I remember seeing them during the event clumped along the walls like nervous 7th graders at a school dance. But it was fun for me to try to turn the practice of social mixing into theory.

And today, for the shy among you, here’s my on-line version of that Schmoozing 101 curriculum.

  • First, go up to guests, introduce yourself, and listen for and repeat their names. Smile, and look as though you’re happy to meet them. Yes, these are things your parents taught you when you were little. They’re still applicable.
  •  Ask your guests how they first connected with the organization. Don’t ask them why they’re there, or they might say something snippy like, “God knows why!” or, “My wife dragged me here as pay-back for my high school reunion,” or “Free food!” No: Ask them how they first got connected with the organization. That’s a conversation-starter, not ender. “I’m good friends with Bill Shapiro, your board chair,” the person might say, which will lead to a conversation about Bill, what a good guy he is, and how that person and Bill first met. Or the guest may say, “My neighbor got very sick, and you folks helped him out – I was really impressed,” which gets you going on the organization and its work.
  • Ask them, “What kind of work do you do?” Note the phrasing. Asking them, “Where do you work?” can be dangerous territory, because they may not be employed in a traditional kind of job. (These days, that’s a lot of people.) You run the risk of having someone tell you they were just laid off, or making a stay-at-home parent feel awkward, or having an unemployed architect feel she must explain that the only work she can find is as the night clerk at Seven-Eleven. But if you ask “What kind of work do you do?” everyone can answer in a way that saves face and puts the best spin on things. “I’m in the energy business.” “I’m a volunteer.” “I mostly am home with the kids, and on the side I’m a freelance writer.” This is a conversation-opener, and conversation-openers ease the social awkwardness. “Wow! What kind of writing do you do?”
  • Say to them, “So tell me about your family.” That’s loads better than “Do you have kids?” What if they tried to have kids, but weren’t able to conceive, or the adoption fell through? Or if they recently lost a child? Or are estranged from a child? Or they have chosen not to have kids, and they’re tired of people asking about children. Other people, of course, do want to talk about their kids. Sometimes, endlessly. (I’m one of those. Sorry. You’re forewarned.) If you ask, “So tell me about your family,” it’s open-ended enough that people can talk about their parents, their siblings, their kids, their annoying uncles, their in-laws, their godchildren, their cats. It invites a hearty response, and it doesn’t trigger bad reactions.
  • Ask them, “So any travel plans for the summer?” Everyone has travel plans. They may be going to Katmandu. Or they may be taking a day trip to the beach or going to a family wedding in Indianapolis. And travel plans tend to bring a smile to people’s faces, as they think about the place that they have chosen as their destination. “Well! We have this little spot on the coast of Maine!” [Cue the smile.] And be prepared to share your own travel plans – though be brief!

Which brings me to the most important point…

  • Listen much, talk little. People like to talk and tell stories about themselves. Let them. Learn from them.  You don’t learn about other people by telling long stories about yourself. Don’t be taciturn or ungenerous in talking about yourself – but give them most of the airtime. (I write this knowing that I often violate this rule. But do as I say, not as I do.)
  • Finally, follow up! Try to get the person’s business card and follow up with an email or note saying what a pleasure it was to connect. Thank the person for coming. Remember to say how much you enjoyed her story about this or that. Add that person to your LinkedIn connections if you’re into social media – then you’ll see one another’s faces pop up on the screen in the months to come. You’ll get so you recognize one another at sight. And at next year’s annual event you’ll be old friends – with plenty to talk about.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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11 Comments. Leave new

  • So true, Al. This is good advice for any social interaction…whether it be a backyard party or networking event.

  • Al, I have also learned that asking “How do you spend your time?” or “How do you like to spend your time?” bypasses the “where do you work” question too – and it can bring out a more personal response as it opens the door for any kind of response beyond work.

  • Absolutely awesome essay. Hope it was OK for me to post this on our company’s knowledge base. We are all schmoozers at one time or another.

  • Great piece Alan! As I get ready to attend an event for an organization that I am not very familiar with (payback for a reunion?) it provides a framework for discussions that will help me to better know the group myself and what motivates volunteers that are already involved.

  • Mary Earick
    March 1, 2013 7:20 am

    Hi Al,
    Doug and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog over coffee. I would have to add that schmoozing 101 can and should be applied to the field of education as well, listening to and engaging our students in their narratives, stories and histories. Whether funders or students we are all working towards moving our missions forward. Thank you for an thoroughly engaging read.

  • Mary Earick
    March 1, 2013 7:23 am

    PS…perhaps it is not “schmoozing” but building your communities of support.

  • Jonathan Routhier
    March 9, 2013 1:08 pm

    Great piece Al!

  • Thanks Alan. Excellent ideas. We will use thses ideas for our NH nonprofit effort!

  • This is a really good refresher. I don’t like the “What do you do for a living question?”. It feels like the person is sizing you up when you get asked that. Now I have a better idea how to handle it. One day at my wife’s work party a guy asked me what I do for a living and I responded I don’t like to talk about my job. It got SO awkward after that. Anyway, good article.


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