Effective networking at a business event or mixer is an important skill that entrepreneurs should learn to help build their business. In a previous article here at Entrepreneur.com, I talked about the "10 Commandments of Working a Mixer" . All of these techniques are predicated on the idea that you actually meet and talk to people at the event. Many times when entrepreneurs attend the ever-popular networking mixer, they have a difficult time reading the crowd and knowing when and where to get started. Sometimes, that seems to be the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs in networking. They may say to themselves, "I don't want to just barge in. Where do I start? Who do I talk to?"
Being able to assess the room is an important beginning for the process. For example, look at diagram A, below. Here is a top-down view of a portion of the room during a business mixer. For the person entering the room (like the individual with the "?" in the bottom right corner), it's hard to determine where to start in the networking process.
With that in mind, consider this. The next time you're attending a networking mixer, take note of how people stand physically grouped together. You'll find that people stand with their bodies clearly indicating whether or not they're open to having someone approach and join them or not. In other words, literally look for "open" vs. "closed" groups.
What do I mean by open vs. closed groups? Compare diagrams B and C below. You'll note that in diagram B, the two people are standing parallel to one another with their shoulders squared off in a way that doesn't make it easy for anyone to enter the conversation. It is a "closed two" group. However, in diagram C, you will note that the two parties are standing slightly askew, which makes it easier for someone to join the conversation. This is an example of an "open two."
The same rules apply to groups of three individuals. When they have closed the circle, it indicates that they're having a more private conversation or aren't interested in meeting someone else at that moment. This would not be the group to break into and introduce yourself.
Sometimes, the closed threes do open for a time and then reclose. As you watch the group, take the opportunity to come in the group during the times when they are physically open. This usually indicates the ebb and flow of conversation and lets you know that there's a break in the intensity of conversation, or at least in the privacy of the conversation.
When three people have opened their circle, usually with a slight break between two of them, you can clearly see that there's room for another person to join in the group. These are the configurations to look for in a group of people where the majority of them are businesspeople you don't know.
Being able to read any size crowd and gauge when to come into a group of two, three or more people who are networking is an acquired skill. If you aren't able to learn this concept, you might be destined to attend event after event and finally make the presumption that networking events aren't a good way for you to make connections or develop new networking partners.
This couldn't be further from the truth. You must put yourself out there into the mix for it to work. I like to say, "Networking is a contact sport." In order to make those connections, you need to successfully gauge the warmth of the smaller gatherings of people at the mixer.
Take another look at diagram A, above. Can you spot the open and closed groups? It's amazing how the same diagram makes sense when you look at it from the perspective of open or closed groups.
Often people who attend the mixer together will stay grouped together for the entire event. As the event unfolds, however, they'll open and close their grouping. I've seen this happening and watched as networkers who were savvy to this concept came into the grouping as it opened, met the attendees and then moved around the room meeting others, collecting business cards of future contacts for their successful networking efforts.
By utilizing the analogy of open and closed threes, you'll find that the next networking mixer you attend will be more profitable, as well as more enjoyable!
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.