The Science of Schmooze

by Staff - Original publish date: January 18, 2012

It's half an hour before an executive schmooze-fest at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Ken Morse is giving last-minute networking tips to a crowd of MBA students and invited guests. As managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, Morse teaches aspiring business leaders the nuts and bolts of growing and sustaining a business. His lecture on networking is one of the highlights of the semester.

Networking - or making professional contacts through friends, family, and other associates - is the most popular way to find a new job, according to a poll. It is also an indispensable tool for promoting and growing a business. You don't need an MBA to understand how to network, but it doesn't hurt to listen in on what the MBAs are learning.

Cocktail Calculus
At MIT networking sessions, students learn the basics: Arrive early and study the nametags. Never stand between a potential contact and the bar. Try to position yourself under lights, where you are more visible. Best bet: stand near the food, because endorphin levels are highest when people are eating.

Fluid Dynamics

Morse often draws diagrams depicting how networkers should work their way around a room full of potential contacts, using his blackboard in the same way as a football coach would map out his players' strategy.

He draws a big rectangle and marks the inside of the box with odd shapes that represent the entrance, the nametag table, the bar, and the food table.

"The room is always a big rectangle," he says. "Your challenge is to stand out from the clutter for the few people you need to meet."

Arrive early, study the nametags, then make a short list of people to talk to based on what you're trying to accomplish, Morse says. He points to the nametag table. If appropriate, leave a note on the person's nametag, written on the back of your business card. If you're hoping to meet one person in particular, and you know what he or she looks like, then wait outside if the weather is nice, which will give you an advantage, he adds.

One mistake some students make is to try to catch their targets at the bar. "Don't nab somebody just before they go to the bar. That's a nerd thing," Morse says. He puts a circle next to the bar and makes an "X" nearby, showing the "X" trying to advance but being blocked by the interfering circle. He puts a slash through the circle.

So where should you network? Stand under some lights at a distance from the bar, he says. "My favorite spot is by the food, because people's endorphin level is higher when they're eating. This is blood chemistry." He draws a circle near the hors d'oeuvres.

Students should also work in teams. Morse paints a scenario: "You are talking to the leader of a Latin American startup and you say to him, 'We've got the smartest guy in my class who knows that space. I think I can get you a couple of minutes talking to him.' You've done the CEO and yourself a favor," he said. "You've positioned yourself as a thought leader, you've helped the guy network, and you're strengthening the Sloan network by introducing members of your team."

Meanwhile, another teammate is by the door, next to the table where the nametags are displayed. "From your knowledge of compressible fluid flow you know it's not hard to suck somebody in" through the door and around the nametag table into a conversation, he says. You then deploy "piggyback strategies" to trade places with your teammate and increase coverage of the event.

Trade Show Trajectories
At trade shows, don't be one of the "polyester literature collectors," those who stop at all the booths and pick up whatever people are handing out.

Think like a polished, professional entrepreneur who is there to meet other serious players; not like someone attending the conference or show on a boondoggle. Your strategy probably means "no booth, no suite, no shrimp"; you will make your impact in other ways.

Talk to the speakers, not the literature collectors, and be early for interesting sessions. Speakers are often the most interesting people at a conference or trade show - but are much easier to talk to before their presentation, not as the crowds descend after the thought-provoking talk. The amount of time in advance of their talk that speakers arrive at a conference is "the square of the distance between their office and the event." Since the speaker may be there at least a day early, you may be able to get to the speaker well ahead of the talk, Morse says.

Morse gives the the class strategies to keep contacts hanging around long after the last cheese ball has been eaten and the piano player has gone home. To increase your impact, withhold business cards until the end of the conversation, he says.

When companies pay for employees to go to conferences and events, the attendees usually have to write a report - and the further they fly, the more positive the report must be to justify the expense, Morse says. The managers "will attach what they get from you to the report. Make them stay and wait for it."

You will usually know in advance whether you'd be willing to miss the last plane for someone terrific.

And remember, "a person's name, to that person, is the sweetest and most important sound in any language."

Networking Tips from M.I.T.

  • Arrive early and study the nametags.
  • Make a short list of people you want to talk to.
  • Write a note on the back of your business card and leave it on the person's nametag.
  • If you're hoping to meet one person in particular, and you know what the person looks like, wait outside if the weather is nice, where you have an advantage.
  • Smile at the people you talk to and remember their names.
  • Encourage other people to talk about themselves.
  • Go get somebody a drink.
  • Introduce people as though they were the most important people in the world.
  • Present your business card at the end of the conversation.