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July 27, 2015 Asked and Answered

How to conquer anxiety and break the ice during professional events (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Do you get social anxiety thinking about networking at big events? Is it hard to make connections with other lawyers? Focus on what you can learn about others, rather than telling people about yourself, business development coach Larry Kohn tells the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward.

If you’re attending the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago this week, you may be able to put some of these tips into practice. Click here to find out more about the 2015 ABA Annual Meeting. And if you have go-to icebreakers of your own, share them in the comments.

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think you might benefit from connections at bar association events, but find the thought of going to one panic-inducing? You’re not alone. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s Asked and Answered, business development coach Larry Kohn tells us about some good ways lawyers can make connections at bar events, and maybe even enjoy themselves. Larry, welcome to the show.

Larry Kohn: Thanks, Stephanie. It’s great to be here.

Stephanie Francis Ward: First question for you: If you’re nervous about attending a bar association event or any kind of networking event, what are some good ways that you can build yourself up and maybe calm yourself down before you go?

Larry Kohn: I think the most important thing to do is to consider why you’re nervous. There’s probably one of two reasons: Either you’re nervous because you think it’s a waste of time or you’re nervous because you think it’s gonna be an embarrassing experience.

So these are two very real fears and they have to be dealt with. But the key, of course, to any networking event is that it’s well targeted. If there are good people in the room—people that could be clients, people that could be referral sources—then you’ll be less concerned about wasting your time.

So if you’re concerned, it may be that the event that you’re going to isn’t well targeted or you don’t know who’s gonna be there, in which case you should try to find out. And the second issue is that if you’re not clear about what your goal is in networking, then you might feel very worried or uncomfortable. Most people really misunderstand the goal of working a room. The goal is to do research. It is not a social experience. So many people that we deal with think that the reason that we go is to socialize and to brag about how great their skills are, or how great their law firm is.

And of course you would feel uncomfortable if you thought that the purpose of going was to make friends or false friendships that you will then try to turn into clients. So the goal is research. You’re there to find out, “Is this a good place for me to be spending my time in the future? Who are the people that are there? Why are they there? What are their needs?”

If you really think of yourself as a reporter going to an event with the purpose of finding out the information that’s important to you, then you’ll feel good about it.

So if you’re nervous and you’re afraid that the targets aren’t good, do a better job of researching your targets. If you’re nervous because you feel it’s gonna be embarrassing, it won’t be embarrassing if you’re there to do research.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. What’s your advice about introducing yourself to a target who you haven’t met before? Maybe you met briefly and he or she doesn’t remember who you are.

Larry Kohn: If you have met somebody and you’re afraid that they won’t remember you, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “Forgive me but I’ve forgotten your name.” And just be up front about it.

The key here is to be true and sincere about who you are and what you bring to the table. Your whole goal in developing business is to demonstrate that you have the characteristics that somebody would want to have when they were working with you. And one of those is somebody who is a straight shooter. Who tells the truth and speaks from the heart.

And so if you don’t remember somebody’s name, then you don’t remember it. But you could certainly walk up to somebody and say, “May I introduce myself?” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in an environment like a bar association. You could just walk up to people and say hello.

Stephanie Francis Ward: We have our big American Bar Association Annual Meeting coming up in a couple of weeks. Do you have advice for those big bar events that are not just one night, but take place over a weekend? What kind of advice do you have for something like that, where you’re there a couple of days; you’re going to see faces over and over. What’s your specific advice for a larger bar event?

Larry Kohn: First of all, there’s really not that much difference between a large event and a small event, other than the fact that there’s just more people. When there’s a large event, you have access to more people and you have the ability to reach out to them just as you would in a smaller event. The goal in any event is to be familiar with who’s gonna be there. So doing your homework in advance is really important. Think about the people that you’d really want to meet so that you can ask around when you’re talking to somebody.

You say, “By the way, I’m really interested in meeting so-and-so; do you know that person? Or have you seen that person?” Try to figure out where that person or those people might be attending; which programs are they going to be going to so that you increase the likelihood of having face time with quality targets.

I think one of the mistakes people make in working a room is that they underestimate the number of people that they could actually interact with. The goal is to really bump up the numbers. You could go into a room and meet 30 or 40 people without too much difference, in a very short period of time, if you’re very focused on that process.

But what most people do is they meet somebody that they know, they think, “Thank goodness I found somebody I can talk to!” And they chat with them the whole time instead of doing what they should be doing, which is really focusing on increasing the numbers. It’s a mistake to think that you could meet with somebody and chat with them for a long enough period of time that they’d actually bond with you and want to do business with you. The process of developing that kind of relationship may take many years. So the goal for working a room is to bump up the numbers. That’s a key, key issue. And of course at a big event, you have more numbers than at a small event.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. Do you have tips on how to appear approachable? Like, if you’re in the corner on your phone, people are probably not going to approach you. But if you look pleasant and make eye contact, people probably will approach you. What are your thoughts on—besides you approaching people, I think it’s nice to be approached, as well.

Larry Kohn: It is nice. It’s unlikely that somebody is just going to walk up to you. But the fact is that keeping a small smile on your face is very important. Because it’s very common when you’re serious or engaged, that you have a little bit of a stern face. And when you’re stern, people might interpret that as being unapproachable or unhappy about being there. So to have a pleasant smile—I like to call it a “Madonna smile.” It’s not a grin but it’s a smile that basically says “I’m happy to be here and I look forward to meeting you.”

What’s really important, though, is not to wait around for people to approach you because it will almost never happen, unless they know you, in which case you probably don’t need to see them again; although there would be benefit in seeing them.

But the goal is to put yourself in situations where you meet more people. One of the best ways to do that is to do something that we call a counterintuitive tip, which is to pick the longest drink line at the event. The normal behavior would be to pick the shortest drink [line] so that you can get your drink quickly. But if you pick a long drink line, then you’re sandwiched in between the person in front of you and the person behind you while you’re waiting in line. And it’s inevitable that you would have an opportunity to chat.

Another tip for meeting people is to arrive very early. Get there as early as you possibly can. Because if you get there early, you’ll meet people as they come in. And if the room is pretty empty, it’s much, much easier to say hello to somebody when they walk into an empty room and it’s just you there, than if you walk into a very crowded room where cliques and conversations have already begun.

You should also leave late. Once again, this counterintuitive tip. The normal thought would be get out before the valet line gets long. But that’s not the best thing to do. The best thing to do is to stick around and meet with the people who put on the event because often they are leaders in the organization, and they might be very good for you to meet, and they would know other people.

Another thing that you could do is accept the responsibility for being an ambassador. If you were to get involved in an organization, the very best committee to be on is the membership committee, or the ambassadors’ committee if they have one, where it’s actually your job to walk up to strangers and welcome them to the event. And if you can be in that role, it’s unbelievably easy, unbelievably fun, because you actually are given the authority to walk up to strangers and to say hello.

There are several other counterintuitive tips, by the way. I’ve written an article called “Ten Counterintuitive Tips for Working a Room”, which appear on my website at

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think that sometimes perhaps people who are a bit socially awkward or maybe introverted, they go to these events and they’re like: “I need to get business; I need to get some job connections. This is what I’m going to do.” And they almost have tunnel vision where if they just went with the attitude of “Oh, this will be interesting; maybe I’ll meet some interesting people and get some interesting stories.” The latter approach would probably do better. It’s like, “I’m out and I’m gonna get business.”

Larry Kohn: I think it’s unrealistic to expect to get business. But it is realistic to expect to develop the ability to meet new, good contacts. So I don’t think that you should go just to think let’s just see what the world has to deliver; although certainly that can be fun. But people are busy and people are doing this because they want business. The goal is to meet people who can refer business. The goal is to meet people who is going to be a client. But that doesn’t mean to try to do business with them. So it doesn’t mean bragging about who you are or what you do.

There’s this great, great myth that’s perpetrated by a lot of marketing consultants that you need to develop some kind of elevator speech that, within 30 seconds, explains who you are and gets them excited about what it is that you do. That is absolutely ridiculous. The level of trust that’s required, the level of information that you need to communicate is so extensive that the likelihood of your having some one sentence that’s gonna get people excited about you is really very remote.

The best advice that I can give with regard to that kind of an elevator speech is to say something like, “Hi, I’m a lawyer; what do you do?” And by asking people what they do, it gives you the ability to learn about who they are, what they do, and then customize your future dialog so that you can be valuable to them. Once again, the key to your ability to get people excited about you is to not brag about how great you are; but rather to be able to be valuable to them right on the spot.

So if you’re talking to somebody and they explain what it is that they do, you can say, “Really? We’ve created a checklist that can help people in that situation; I’d be delighted to send it to you.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: What’s your thoughts on business cards versus vCards or both? What do you think?

Larry Kohn: The most important thing of all is to get the card. And I am perfectly comfortable with people not even giving their card to somebody. Because if you give your card to somebody, then you’re putting the burden on them to follow up with you. And the likelihood of that happening is far less than if you get their card. So there’s nothing wrong with giving your card, and sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s formal and you’ll give yours and they’ll give theirs. So it’s okay to give your card but the goal is to get the card. vCard, same thing. vCards are wonderful if you can get their card; that’s the key.

And the way you do that is you offer something of value that in order for them to get it, they would need to give you their contact information. So let’s say you created some really cool app that people would find valuable. Then you could say, “Give me your card and I’ll send you a link so that you can download the app that I’ve developed.” Or: “Give me your card and I’ll email you the checklist of things that you should be thinking about in the circumstance that we talked about.” So, if the key is getting the card, and be less concerned about handing your card to others.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And what are your thoughts on following up afterwards? Say you just met and you weren’t able to offer something to help that person with. What do you think about just sending a quick email saying, “Hi, great to meet you; if I could help you at all in the future, please let me know.”

Larry Kohn: One of the most important tips that I can give your listeners is that the only reason you’re there is to develop business. And the only way you’re really going to develop business is if you follow up. So your first and foremost rule—and you should try to never, ever break this rule—is you always negotiate the follow-up before you leave that conversation. So that it’s very clear you’re going to be calling to get together for lunch; you’re going to be calling to arrange to introduce them to another colleague; you’re going to be calling because you’re going to let them know about an even that you’re going to be going to and maybe they want to join you.

The rule is you never leave a meeting with a target without negotiating the follow-up. Now, if you break that rule, then the burden is on you to follow up and yes, an email saying “it was good talking to you and I appreciate the opportunity to visit.” But then in that communication you need to present an offer, some reason that would be valuable for them to want to spend additional time with you. Because if you don’t spend time with people, you can’t communicate to them all of the reasons that they should trust you; all of the reasons that they should be excited about referring business to you; all of the reasons that are necessary for them to understand, for them to hire you.

The key is spending time with your target. So if you don’t negotiate that follow-up, you must follow up and when you do, the follow-up isn’t: “Hey, great meeting you; let’s chat.” That, on its face, isn’t really a valuable offer.

Stephanie Francis Ward: What I see increasingly is people who are active on social media with their practices will do some networking through social media, as well with tags—before and after bar events. What do you think about that? Using photos and hashtags to maybe break the ice for when you meet in person or keep that connection going for after you’ve met in person?

Larry Kohn: It’s certainly wonderful. Social media is a stunningly important and valuable mechanism for meeting new people and for staying in touch with people. The risk, of course, is that social media in some way replaces face time. And while yes, there will be circumstances where social media can actually generate business, in reality it’s more for lead generation and it’s more for keeping people aware of you and brand awareness, that kind of thing. But actually getting people to pull the trigger and hire you, that requires a level of trust and confidence that for most lawyers comes as a result of really knowing you well or really knowing the referral source who brought you in.

If there’s a really trusted, pre-existing relationship with the referral source, then the prospect doesn’t need to get to know you that well, because they’re relying on the trust they have for the referral source. But social media, as wonderful and important as it is, is often seen as the be-all and end-all and it is not. You have to have that face time to build that trusting relationship.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have any tips on navigating inappropriate behavior at bar events? Maybe if it’s like a sexual harassment sort of thing; sometimes people get a little out of pocket at bar events, especially if there’s alcohol involved. What are your tips on that?

Larry Kohn: I think the best way is to excuse yourself. You’re not gonna change somebody’s behavior if they’re acting inappropriately. You can’t possibly imagine that you could then develop a relationship with someone who is acting inappropriately and you reprimanded them in any fashion. So if you’re dealing with people who are not socially appropriate, I think the best thing to do is to excuse yourself.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think that some of the best networking can be done at bar association events or do you think it maybe is better in other ways?

Larry Kohn: That really depends upon who your targets are. If you’re a litigator, then there’s a very good possibility you’re gonna be getting your referrals from other lawyers, in which case bar associations are a wonderful place. If you’re a corporate lawyer and you don’t do litigation, then litigators might also be good referral sources. I think the weakness that people have is that they often go to bar association meetings thinking that they’ll double up and they’ll do both their CLE and their networking. And often those are not compatible.

If you’re a real estate lawyer and you’re going to a real estate CLE, then you have to ask yourself, “Can I get referrals from other real estate lawyers?” If you can, great. But often you’ll come to the conclusion that you really can’t get referrals from your competitors. And in that case, bar associations for your area specialty are not a good place.

Once again, as we said at the very first thing, you’ve got to make sure that you’re going to events that targets are present. So the key is to not pick the CLEs that you need CLE credit for, but rather pick the CLEs that are attractive to your targets. And then you go to those.

So you might say, “I’m a corporate lawyer but I could get referrals from real estate lawyers; wouldn’t I look funny going to a real estate CLE?” And the answer is no, you wouldn’t. You’re allowed to go to any CLE you want, and you’re allowed to express interest in any activity you want. And if you could go to events where the topic is interesting to your target, you’re going to meet more targets than if you go to one that’s just interesting for your own area of specialty.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Does your advice for business development, does it differ between a bar event, social events like a cocktail reception, versus an MCLE seminar?

Larry Kohn: The problem with MCLE seminars is that a lot of the time is spent learning and not networking. Cocktail receptions give you the ability to just stand and socialize and then move around, walk to the next person and really cover more ground. The benefit, of course, of a CLE is that you have the opportunity to meet the speakers. And often, it’s meeting the speakers that are the best targets of a CLE program. Because let’s say your targets are in-house counsel and you’ve got a panel of in-house counsel that are speaking. That’s wonderful opportunity to walk up to those speakers at the end of the program and introduce yourself and find out what’s the procedure for getting on your approved lawyer list. You can be that direct, and we see that a lot.

People are very effective in just walking up to speakers and introducing themselves and pursuing a relationship with those companies. So once again, whether it’s social or educational, your goal is to meet as many targets as you possibly can, and that should be the driving force in your deciding whether it should be a social event or a learning event.

Stephanie Francis Ward: When you mentioned coming up and asking questions to the speakers like that—or the guests of honor—I think that some people have this impression that I might bother someone if I approach someone; who am I to approach him or her? But the truth is, people who are in powerful positions to give business, they expect to be approached because they often are. Would you agree?

Larry Kohn: That’s the business that they’re in. They know that everybody that they’re speaking to wants to get business from them. Do you think the in-house counsel at Google or Microsoft, do you think that they’re not aware of the fact that every lawyer in the room that they’re talking to wants to do business with them? That’s their job is hiring lawyers. So there’s no reason to feel uncomfortable.

The key is to feel confident that you could feel valuable. If you are a boutique firm and you really have the ability to do something special for the person you wan to introduce yourself to, then clarity of your ability to be valuable is going to motivate you to reach out to that person. But if you think that you couldn’t be of any value to them, if you think you’re not qualified to interact with them or you don’t think that you could be helpful to them, then of course you’ll be shy. Of course you’ll feel uncomfortable, and you’ll be right.

Stephanie Francis Ward: On that note, I think that’s everything I wanted to ask you. Did you want to add anything else?

Larry Kohn: I just want to make it really clear that people have a great, hostile feeling towards working a room. Some of the most common complaints that I get from people when we coach them is that they don’t like working a room. They’re good at the one-on-one but not working a room. And it’s really because they really completely misunderstand what working a room is.

Working a room is research. And the more you go to programs where you can find out the information that you want to learn about the quality of an organization and the nature of the people that are involved in it, the more excited you’re gonna be about your ability to do this.

And I’ve seen people who were recalcitrant non-marketers who hated working a room because they thought it was supposed to be social. It’s not social; it’s research. Those people, when they learn that, become great at working a room and actually enjoy it.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Thank you so much for your time today, Larry. I really appreciate it. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward. Thank you for listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

[End of transcript]

Updated on July 30 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Larry Kohn, an executive coach, is president of Los Angeles-based Kohn Communications. He’s a co-author of Selling In Your Comfort Zone, which was published by the American Bar Association. He blogs about business development for lawyers at Marketing & Management Blog.