Fearful of talking about your business - How to work a room

Dear Dr. Phil Copitch,

I have started a new 3 person accounting company. I have limited funds. I am also shy. I want to “talk my company up” at a few local business meet and greets, but to be honest, I am petrified about making a fool out of myself. Any advice you can give me about how to feel more comfortable at a Chamber of Commerce meeting would be greatly appreciated. I just don’t know what I should be doing.

Carl the accountant, Borrego Springs, CA

Congratulations you are normal

Hi Carl,

Most people are shy and hate the idea of “working a room.” So, congrats! You are normal. That being said, if you can learn to comfortably talk to others you will be far ahead of your competition. You will get the benefits of low cost face to face “advertising”. I will be happy to give you some solid techniques to conquer your very human fear so you can build your business.

Working a room is a very important skill to have in your business quiver. I am a big fan of “networking,” not for the simple reason of talking about your business, but for the much more important reason of building relationships with others. Networking is not just low cost advertising. It is an important way to build relationships with others.

People do business with those they trust and like. Thus, for you to build your business, your customers need to know about you as well as like and trust you.

I’m shy

On surveys, most people self identify as being shy. So, if you are going to an event with say 20-30 people in attendance, you know that about half are feeling uncomfortable. I point this out because you can help them by starting a conversation.

But what do I talk about?

I am constantly told, “I don’t like small talk”. This may be true, but it is not looking at the situation optimally. For me small talk is “start a relationship” talk. It is only small at the beginning. Small talk such as: “Hi, how are you doing?” “Go local team.” “Isn’t it hot/rainy/cold?” Are all small but great openings.

Remember, people came to the event to meet others. You are why they came to the meeting. They probably want to tell you something about their business.  Isn’t this the same reason you came to the meeting? Great, now get past the initial small talk and onto the relationship building talk.

Should I ask questions?

Great question and the answer is yes and no. It is a good idea to ask honest questions. Questions you are willing to listen to as they answer. It is very off-putting when someone asks me a question then interrupts me to talk about their agenda. So ask honest questions, but no more than 3 in a row. If you ask too many questions you start to sound like a stalker, and that will not help you build a relationship.

It is important that you do not try to lead the conversation. Your goal should be to meet the other person. To learn about the other person. To care about the other person. For this to happen you need to allow the conversation to flow naturally.

People like people that like them.

Ask about the host

At a meet and greet, I personally like to ask the new friend I just met how they know the host. “How long have you been in the Chamber?” We both know the host, so it is a comfortable starting point.

My goal is to keep my agenda under control. But if I learn about the other person’s agenda I am starting to build a conversation. Even if I have no interest in their product (which happens most of the time) I can be interested in them.

“Do you have broken tile in your home?” they may ask.

“No , luckily I don’t. I would think it is hard to sell tile. Is it?”

I may not need tile but I am interested in how companies sell their goods. So is my new friend. See, we now have something in common.

By finding something we have in common, my new friend and I have started to build a relationship.

Label yourself

When meeting new people at an event I advise two forms of labeling, the “Hello I’m…” label and the verbal “this is who I am” label.

The paper label

I have heard it a million times at the start of many conferences, “I hate this stupid label.”  Not me. My label is a way to help others feel comfortable talking to me. I put my full name large and neat along with my job benefit. I don’t use my job title, that only makes my mom happy and doesn’t lead to a comfortable conversation. I like to proudly show off my benefits.


This is a paper label with my title:


This is a paper label showing off my benefit:


By showing my benefits I help others feel comfortable to talk to me about problems I may be able to help them with.

I always put my label on my left chest area. So when I shake hands it is easy for my new friend to glance at and read.

The verbal label

Like the printed label, the verbal label is your introduction to another person or a group of individuals. When you introduce yourself, there are a few simple rules.

  1. Smile
    Look relaxed and show a nice tooth showing smile while making eye contact.
  2. Offer your hand
    If appropriate for this particular group.
  3. Introduce yourself with your 9 second speech.
    (I’ll cover 9-second speeches in a moment.) Give your benefits not your job title.
  4. Ask the other person to participate,
    I like: “How is your world?” Other comfortable transition lines are, “How are you doing?” “What brings you here?” “How do you know the host? (say name)”


The goal is to open the conversation. The best way to open a conversation is to ask others about themselves. Then, listen. Don’t think about how you get to talk next, truly listen to the person. Then continue the conversation they have started. Remember, you are not the leader of the conversation, you are a participant in the conversation.

A 9-second speech

A 9-second speech is a mini verbal performance that teaches the listener how to think of you or your company, refer to your company, or help your company in some way. It is a technique for getting people you have had contact with to think of you or your company at an opportune time, a time when they can choose your product or service, or refer to your product or service. It is a powerful, and often underutilized, marketing tool that is necessary to master if you wish to grow a thriving business.

Why 9-seconds?

It is my experience that 9-seconds is the longest that any mini-speech should go. Most are less. It is socially acceptable to dominate a conversation for a little bit while you get your thoughts out. I have found that most people are comfortable with letting me yammer away for up to 9 seconds.

If you had 9-seconds to introduce yourself to any of the following, what would you say?

  •  Medical doctor
  •  Cab driver
  •  Veterinarian
  •  Dentist
  •  Nurse
  •  Office worker
  •  Minister
  •  Police officer
  •  Florist
  •  Waitress
  •  Entrepreneur
  •  Cook
  •  Funeral home director
  •  Soccer coach
  •  Plumber
  •  High school teacher
  •  Pre-school director
  •  Cashier


Throughout the year you will have hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities to talk about your company. If you had only 9-seconds what would you say? In those 9-seconds, what are the best words to say what needs to be said?

For more details on how to develop a 9-second speech see my article: Business and money: Your Second Most Important Marketing Tool is Free

People don’t like to be sold

It is important to keep in mind that you are not trying to sell your product or services at this first meeting. Your goal should be to meet some like minded people and build a friendship.

How to start a conversation with someone you have never met

Many people find even the thought of initiating a conversation petrifying. So let me tell you a secret. Others will help you start to talk to them.

When participants are getting dressed to attend the greet and meet they choose their armor. Cloths and jewelry that help them feel comfortable. By noticing something interesting about their tie, jewelry, or handbag you have an opening to start a conversation.

“I love that broach,” my friend says pointing to a gold and white ornament on a woman’s blazer.

“Oh thank you, I got it as a graduation gift from my grandmother, I know it’s silly, but it brings me good luck.”

An interesting conversation has begun.

By noticing a part of a persons armor, people willing let you talk to them.

Invite others to talk to you with your armor

Dress for success is a common and useful mantra. Make sure you fit into the dress code of the meeting you are attending. This will help you feel comfortable and also encourage others to talk to you. You can add to the dress code a conversation starter. If you are into fishing, your fish tie pin is a great conversation starter.

One year I was in Reno at a conference just before Christmas. I wore a red Santa hat just for fun. It was easy for people to say “hi” to me at the meet and greet. During the conference I forgot all about the Santa hat. As I walked back to my hotel, people kept saying “hi” to me on the street. I even got a few unsolicited comments like, “Nice beard,” and lots of very friendly “Merry Christmas!”  After the second drunk tried to shake my hand it dawned on me that I was still wearing my conversation starting Santa hat.

I’ll tell you one thing, have a large beard and a Santa hat makes people very comfortable to say “hi” and befriend you in the “biggest little city in the world.

In the next example my friend gets too close for my liking. But it works for him and his business.

A pro move of noticing a problem to be solved

My friend the dentist constantly notices things about people’s teeth.

“So that crown looks uncomfortable,” he says pointing at a woman’s mouth.

“Yeah, my dentist back home put it in. But it has been giving me trouble lately,” she says as she opens her mouth and shows off her tooth.

“I’m a dentist, you don't need to have anything less than a perfect smile, let me give you my card,” my friend the dentist says after he peers into her gaping mouth.

He hands the woman his card and says, “Call first thing Monday morning, I don’t want you to be in any discomfort. Tell Patty that I want to see you as soon as possible.”

I have seen this many times. In restaurants, while waiting in line at the movies, and once at a car dealership while he was negotiating a new car deal. He gets right up into their gaping mouths… I’m glad I’m not a dentist.

Take a wing-man or woman

Often people prefer going to a meet and greet with a wing-man/woman. A wing-man/woman is a friend that attends a function with you to help you, or both of you, feel comfortable. This can be a problem at a greet and meet. If you and the wing-man/woman are involved in a comfortable conversation, your body language often will tell others that you are “occupied” and you should not be interrupted.

There are a few tricks to make sure that your body language doesn’t push others away.

Don't stand face to face while you are talking. This closed group body position is uninviting to newcomers. It is best to stand shoulder to shoulder while conversing. This allows you both to gently scan the room. This way you can invite others into your openly friendly group.

Avoid standing up against a wall if at all possible. Looking like a wall flower is not inviting.

Smile and acknowledge as others wander by. A small nod of the head or small hand gesture of “hi” is inviting.

Serve others

This piece of advice is perfect for my personality. It may not be for you, but I do suggest you try it. When I am in a meet and greet or even a formal sit down dinner, I often notice that someone is not getting their needs met. For example, someone at the table is having difficulty getting their coffee cup refiled. So I get to work helping. I go and get a carafe of coffee from the wait station or kitchen prep area and bring it out. After I fill their cup, I look around and ask if anyone else needs a refill. I have met lots of new friends this way.

But, you may ask, doesn’t an employee get mad at you? Nope, often a wait person or the manager comes over to help me. “Hope you don’t mind that I helped? You folks are so busy tonight.”

And don’t be a snob… wait staff and managers are friends you haven't met as of yet. Over the years I have gotten lots of business from my friends in the service industry.

Be mindful of other’s time

Often you will want to meet a specific person at an event. This is fine, but… probably others want to meet that person also. So be respectful of the other person’s time. I advise you to rub elbows and have a nice, short, meet up with the person you want to meet. Then, as writer Kahlil Gibran suggests, “If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don't, they never were.”

I once wanted to meet Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fame. He was at a book signing and lots of people wanted to meet him. I had heard that he was a new father, a geezer father, as he often called himself. So I thought I would bring him a gift of my parenting book. I met him and thanked him for all the laughter he had brought me over the years. I gave him my book saying, “Now that you are in the father game again, I thought my book might be of help.” He was generous with a smile and thanked me. I said, “You’re welcome. If you have any parenting questions I’ll be here for a bit.”

Fifteen minutes later, as Garrison Keillor made his rounds of the room he said, “hi” and asked me to autograph my book to him. I told him I would be honored and we spoke for a few minutes about how babies are a joy but make parents lose a lot of sleep.

Garrison Keillor holding Dr. Phil's book, Basic Parenting 101

Garrison Keillor holding Dr. Phil's book, Basic Parenting 101


What if you get caught by a chatter box

It may happen that you are at an event and you get caught by a Chatty Kathy. Chatty Kathy may be a very nice person, but he or she is willing to dominate your time at the meet and greet.

I find it’s best to say, “I’ll let you go now, I need to …

  • go say hi to Sidney.”
  • go to the bathroom.”
  • make a quick phone call in the hallway.”


Then break eye contact and walk away politely. The goal is to close the conversation politely, even with an individual that does not take social cues well. My goal is to never hurt their feelings.

How to use business cards at a social activity

Over the last few years I have met so many people that are in business that do not have cards. This amazes me. A business card is a powerful business tool that costs about 5¢. (For a full discussion on business cards see my article: Business and money: Your most Important Marketing Tool Costs 5¢) I think of it as a mini billboard that I get to put right in front of someone’s eyes. Wow, what a tool. So let’s take a few moments to see how you can comfortably give and get business cards.

Be prepared

You want to make it very easy to give out your business card. Once I was at a conference where a woman wanted to give me her card after I handed her mine. She opened her purse, and like an uncomfortable scene in a comedy movie she started to rummage through her bag. “I know I have some right here,” she muttered. She then said, “Hold this for me,” as she handed me a handful of stuff from the first layer of the archaeological dig into her bag. After she found her card, she went to retrieve the stuff I was holding for her. She was mortified when she realized that she had asked me to hold her hair brush, lipstick, and her diaphragm container.

It is best to make it very easy to find your cards. I recommend a circular procedure. Left front pocket is loaded with lots of my cards. I shake hands and then get a card from my left pocket and give it to my new friend. Any card that is given to me is put into my right front pocket. This way you don't end up mixing the incoming cards with the outgoing cards. Handing out someone else’s card by accident is awkward.

When I hand out my cards I tend to hand out two at a time. If the person notices they often say, “Oh, you gave me two.”

“That’s OK,” I smile, “please give it to someone that may need my help.”

At the end of the night you hopefully will have a large stack of cards. This is the start of a beautiful thing. Remember you didn’t go to the conference to get a stack of cards. You went to meet people and to hopefully build a friendly relationship with them. Having a stack of business cards is a start… but you have more to do.

I send thank you cards

Within days I send a thank you note. Yep, a real snail mail note. I hand write each one and I offer to be of assistance if they need my help. I do not “sell” anything in the thank you other than my business card that I put in the envelope with the thank you note. I offer help and I honestly say that I enjoyed meeting them.

Note cards get noticed and saved

Often people balk at the amount of work it takes to send an actual card. Not me, I have no problem spending a few minutes and a dollar (cost of card plus stamp) to build a friendship. And…people really appreciate the cards. They hold onto them, often for years. I have had thank you notes show up years later, “I kept your card until I needed your help.”

I see thank you notes as not only polite, but also wonderful for my business.

To learn more about why a business should send notes please see my article:

Advertising Part D: Your Office, Store, and Vehicles Are Chutzpah Marketing Tools: Examples of note cards

Why send a thank you note?


Thank you for taking your time to read my article. Hopefully you found it helpful.

Now go out and WOW them and let me know how you did.

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