Modern Etiquette: Business cocktail etiquette

(Reuters) - In the world of business, networking is everything. Among the most valuable venues for networking are after-hours business cocktail parties and receptions.

These events provide opportunities for meeting new people and establishing relationships. The key is knowing how to work the event.

That’s right. Work.

Just because an event takes place after hours doesn’t mean you’re off the clock. In fact, the time you spend at an event may be the most valuable time you put in that day and in your career.

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch used to hold cocktail parties specifically to vet junior executives. He looked for budding professionals who knew how to make the most of the moment versus those who only had eyes for the open bar and buffet.

Here are my tips for making the right impression at an after-hours event no matter who’s watching:

1. Before the Event: Prepare for Success

- Because what you’re wearing is key to your first impression wear appropriate business attire.

- Take your cue from the venue and tone of the event regarding how formal to dress.

- Even if the invitation states “business casual” avoid going too casual. You never want to be the worst dressed individual at an event.

- Bring plenty of business cards with you and keep them in an accessible business card holder.

- Always eat before you go. You were invited not because you’re hungry but because you have something to contribute. Plus, eating in advance will keep you from drinking on an empty stomach.

2. At the Event: Make the Right Impression

- Do your best to arrive on time.

- When you enter, step to the side and assess the space, looking for the location of the bar, food, and people.

- Once you decide where to go, move there with purpose.

- If you go to the bar, take and keep your drink in your left hand so your right hand is free (and dry) to shake when meeting others.

- If you head to the buffet, choose foods that are eaten with a fork or toothpick so your hands remain clean.

- If you choose to mingle, avoid approaching individuals engaged in serious conversations. Look for groups where people are open in their body language and appear friendly.

- Don’t barge into conversations. Instead, move near the group, make eye contact, smile, and ask, “May I join you?”

- Shake hands with each individual looking them in the eye and clearly stating your name as well as theirs — “Joe, it’s great to meet you.”

- Repeat with each person.

- When making small talk, ask about the other individual—where they’re from or if they came into town for the event. Simple questions help you learn about the person and provide topics for discussion.

- When sharing business cards, present yours so it can be read by the person receiving it.

- When accepting a card, read it thoroughly, noting the individual’s title, company, and location, which may offer points for discussion and connection.

Making the most of an event doesn’t have to be difficult. Just remain mindful that it’s a professional event and do your best to make a positive impression that indicates doing business with you is a pleasure.

(Pamela Eyring is the owner and president of The Protocol School of Washington® (PSOW), which provides professional business etiquette and international protocol training. Founded in 1988, PSOW is the only school of its kind in the U.S. to become accredited. Any opinions expressed are her own. PSOW’s website is:

Editing by Michael Roddy