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How to Work a Room

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How to Work a Room

It’s time to say goodbye to March and hello to practical jokes, pastels and another Street Sense. Since we have all been faced with awkward conversation starters and less than graceful exits, we thought we would mix things up a bit this month with a Q and A about how to work a room. We could not think of a better source than close friend, Nancy Hillgren, the lovely mother of one of our very own Senses. Nancy is a contemporary woman who embraces a classic, back-to-basics approach for all things social, professional and philanthropic. She has a gift for making those around her feel engaged and fills a room with her infectious smile. So, we asked and she delivered…   

Q: What advice would you give to someone preparing for an event or gathering?   

A: Being social takes one of two things: a natural ability or effort. For those that must try, work your way through your butterflies with an understanding of yourself and a belief that you will be fine! Starting at a young age with programs like Toastmasters or cotillion classes can help certain aspects of being social become more natural, freeing you up to focus solely on conversation, which can help you stay more relaxed. The less time you worry about which fork to use, the more you can focus on connecting with people.

Regardless of skill, be aware of why you are attending an event, whether it’s an opportunity to meet new people, support people or causes that you care about, see old friends or to enjoy the company of like-minded people that share the same interests. Also, when you have competing priorities (as we all do), awareness will ensure that you are aligning your time with your values.   

Q: How do you start and stop a conversation with a stranger?

A: I start by introducing myself, first and last name. Then, I try to relate using a common denominator like a mutual acquaintance or interest.  If I’m not sure of a shared connection, I will give a compliment and ask an open-ended question such as, “how do you know so-and-so?” or “how did you get involved with…?” or “what did you think of…?” The same can be done when approaching a group by saying something like, “I don’t mean to intrude but you seem to all know each other. How did you meet?” Striking a balance between involving yourself in both individual and group conversations creates a dynamic mix of engaging social interaction and allows different conversational entry and exit queues. 

Ending a conversation is a perennial problem that happens even to the best socialites. Just remember that it’s acceptable to walk away if done tastefully. My advice is to take control and end on a positive note. Say something like, “It has been so nice chatting with you. If you’ll please excuse me I have been meaning to connect with so-and-so and I see him just over there.”  

Q: Is fashionably late still a thing?   

A: It depends on the nature of the event. If it’s a professional setting, do NOT be late. I attempt to arrive five minutes early and use the powder room to touch up, allowing myself a few minutes to get a feel for the venue and settle into the event surroundings. For social occasions, having hosted many myself, I think it’s actually courteous to be 10 minutes late, giving the host just a little wiggle room for the final details. Anything more than 10 minutes is rude-zone.   

Q: How do you stand out in a likeable way?  

A: Be gracious and warm. Greet everyone with a positive and upbeat attitude and SMILE! If you’re feeling it, you may also consider a hug over a handshake. Stand tall and be proud; it will help you with your confidence. When I’m hosting an event, I make it a point to greet everyone, including staff, strangers and friends – those who feel welcomed and appreciated most often enjoy themselves in social gatherings.   

Q: Do you have any tips on what to wear? 

A: Dress for the event but let it reflect your own personal style. It will help you stay authentic, which is a likeable quality. If you don’t know or it’s not clear, it’s safer to go with a classic style that is more dressed up. For example, opt for the black dress over the blue jeans or the simple nude over print heels. Choose classic over trendy.

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