How to Work a Cocktail Party

by Larry Chiang on December 13, 2009

Larry Chiang is an instructive humorist. If you liked “10 Things They Don’t Teach You at Business School “, you’ll like this submission on ‘how to work a cocktail party’.


Larry’s book release 09-09-09 and BIO: http://tinyurl.com/AmazonBio

Before he’s done, your vig (aka debt) from business school will be signed, sealed and paid off.

By Larry Chiang

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there are about a dozen holiday cocktail parties. How we “work” these parties affects our careers much more than we care to admit. Some people are naturally at-ease socializing. I’ve observed how these people work a party and summarized ten years of party-going into 10 fundamental networking tips to help you ace the cocktail circuit.

-1- Define a Small Party Goal.

This IS a work function, so having goals for a party is appropriate. For example, your goal could be to say hi to 10+ people before you say hi to one Rob
Hof of Business Week. If you are someone’s guest or their “Plus One”, your goal could be 90 minutes of pretending to be interested in people you may never see ūüėČ (and accidentally learning something in the process). Be like Baxter (my shih tzu) and tilt your head and SELL the fact you are listening intently.

-2- Add Value to the Host.

Susan Roane wrote the book, How to Work a Room and she adds value by managing the party’s host. I manage the host by asking if they need help, making sure they get to meet people and I definitely do not text or call the host before the party “to see how its going”. These calls tend to stress the host out because they have their hands full starting the party.


My mentor, Mark McCormack, who wrote the book, “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School“.

2b) Do Not Try to “Out-Alpha” the Host.

No one-upping in any way shape or form. The best questions for the host are upbeat, light and fluffy which require a simple answer. For example, “Aren’t you happy Dave McClure is here?”, “Don’t you look stunning?”, “Congratulation on being a¬†SXSW speaker” or my fave, “Aren’t you a genius for ordering THESE?”

Keep the compliments simple then let the host mingle.

2c) Add Value Before the Party by RSVPing the Right Way.

The best RSVP is enthusiastic, public, promotional and accurate. Similarly, I added value by crashing a party with a VIP guest. At TechCrunch50, I brought my Grammy winning friend Chamillionaire. He was a big hit in the tech community and the hosts remembered me for it.

2d) Add Value by Being More of a Host and Less of a Guest.

Susan Roane talks about how there are two types of people at a party; hosts and guests. People like hosts more because they make introductions, and make people more comfortable. Guests tend to need attention and maintenance.

-3- ‘Sell’ New Ideas at the Party.

Start with your — or your company’s — core competence.¬† Since Duck9 educates college students about FICO scores and debt minimization, I springboard from the “what-do-you-do-for-work” question with common myths about FICO scores.

This makes me seem substantive and clearly brands me. I’m the “Duck Dude”, with the magnet for a business card who educates college students about their FICO scores.

-4- Attempt to be ONE Person’s Favorite Person.

A big party faux pas is “shoulder surfing”. “Shoulder Surfing” is when you are talking to one person while looking over their shoulder for something better to talk to. I attempt to leave a party with one person saying, “OMG, I hung out with Larry Chiang and he was like a vacation – I love that guy.”

-5- Make Fundamentally Correct Introductions.

Remembering names is 95+% of it. The method of properly making an introduction is outlined in Letitia Baldridge’s book, Executive Manners. In short, you use the person’s name PLUS short summary of who they are. Ideally you introduce junior people to senior, higher ranking (Alphas).


Kiss Beta or Gamma ass in addition to brown-nosing the Alphas. Alpha, Beta, Gamma (and Delta) refer to the pecking order of partygoers. If you meet an Alpha with their entourage of betas and gammas, don’t forget to kiss everyone’s butt because the entourage influences the pack leader’s opinion of you.

-7- Stay Off Your Phone.

If this is the FIRST cocktail mixer you’ve ever been to, PRESS ONE NOW.

-8- Set Aside Your Need to Hook-Up.

It always amazes me how people gravitate to
hot women even at a tech event. My rule of thumb is “no talking to hot women before 11:30pm” (yes, I stole that from Chicago-native Jeremy Piven of Entourage).

I was at a SuperBowl party in Phoenix and it was jam-packed with hot women. All the athletes would absolutely ignore them and palm-press the agents, press, party-producers and the like. Come 11:30 or 11:45pm, people would start coupling off like a mad-dash for musical chairs. Temporarily setting aside your need to hook-up helps you network better.

If you are a woman, you need the opposite strategy. The best tip is “separate, extend and escape”. For example, at a work cocktail party, you want to mix, mingle and not be monopolized and “hot-boxed” (when a person squares you off and is well into your personal space you are getting hotboxed).

(1) First you forecast the separation: ” I think I have to meet my co-worker at the door / bar / table”
(2) Then you extend, “it was nice saying ‘hi’. I’ll come back later”
(3) Finish by turning and walking and you will have escaped.

-9- Master Transitional Phrases.

If you are working the entire cocktail party, you had better ease the start and stop of conversations.

When leaving a group, say, “I’m heading to the bar/bathroom/appetizer tray. Anyone need anything?!”

If you’re meeting a person, while with another person say, “I’m wrangling (aka hosting) my plus one who is late. Can I meet you later?”

If you’re sexually attracted to the person, say “goodness I wanna talk to you all night but my party mentor, Larry Chiang, says I should just get your number so I can keep working the cocktail party”.

The most important transitional phrase is to the host before you leave. Always, always, always: thank the host before you leave.

-10- Follow UP.

Take the business cards you collect and organize them. I put cards into a clear holder within a three ring binder. I also label who I need to follow-up with and how.

** Bonus Party Tip **

What is best thing after a cocktail party? The After-Party that¬†YOU are hosting! It does not have to be at a fancy location. Heck it can even be LaBamba in Lincoln Park, Stanley’s, Gamekeepers or Chinese food if you are in San Francisco.¬† If you have “alpha game”, have it at the Four Seasons and get Duck9 to sponsor it.

Hey next time you’re at a mixer, show someone this post about ‘working a party’ on your iPhone and email them the link. Yes it is a sneaky way of getting THEIR contact info. Or call me and I’ll be your party crashing buddy. 650-283-8008

CONTEST:¬† Please leave your “HOW TO WORK A COCKTAIL PARTY” tip in the comments.¬† Best tip (as voted on by ME) will get a fleece jacket. Winner will be picked after Thanksgiving break or first¬†ten comments, whichever comes later.


Larry’s book release 09-09-09 and BIO: http://tinyurl.com/AmazonBio


Larry Chiang is the founder of duck9, which educates college students on how to establish and maintain a FICO score over 750. He has testified before Congress and World Bank on credit.

He¬†will be a¬†frequent contributor to Business Week’s blog on “What They Don’t Teach You at Business School. His earlier posts at GigaOm include: How to Work The Room; 8 Tips On How to Get Mentored ; and 9 VCs You’re Gonna Want To Avoid. You can read more equally funny, founder-focused-lessons on Larry’s Amazon blog.

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