How to Deal with Squirrels at a Networking Event

I had a very “LA moment” the other day – even though I’m sure a similar scene plays out around the world. 

I was at a conference for entrepreneurs. A wide variety of companies were represented – chiropractic practices, beauty companies, life coaches, and so on. 

The first presentation was a panel of marketing and public relations experts, representing different companies. During the Q&A I lobbed a very professional but hard-hitting question to the PR firms about their business models. 

One of the panelists, an owner of a PR firm, must have been intrigued by me – either for networking purposes or she saw a potential client in me – because when there was a break in the schedule, she made a beeline over to me with her card in hand.networking event

Now, I couldn’t tell you what she had in mind or why she wanted to talk to me…and here’s why.

As she was making her way across the room to speak with me, I was in mid-conversation with an owner of a speakers bureau. (Speakers bureaus are like hollywood talent agents, but for professional speakers.) 

Here’s how it went down.

PR Lady approaches me with her card held out saying, “I wanted to talk to you…” right as the bureau representative says, “Well I left that company and started my own speakers bureau.”

Next thing I know, PR Lady’s head snapped over to make eye-contact with the agent faster than a dog seeing a squirrel. “Oh! You’re a bureau! Well, as you saw, I’m getting into speaking.”

from the movie UP
from the movie UP

And just like that, I was no longer the shiny object she was after.

I don’t share this story with you to badmouth her or winge about it. I share this story with you because there is a lesson in it. It could have been handled better.

I see things from the PR Lady’s perspective. She’s just like any entrepreneur; you have to grab opportunities when you see them. I totally get it. 

But, because of the way she handled it, she walked away with little chance of doing business with either of us. I don’t want you to make the same mistake. 

First of all, when she sparked the conversation with the bureau representative, she clearly didn’t know how bureaus worked. She was asking “Bureau 101” questions, which was a clear sign to the bureau rep that this woman was not a likely candidate. 

Second, because she snubbed me in such a blatant manner, I have little to no inclination to do business with her. Keep in mind, I’m writing a book. Which means, I will likely be shopping for PR firms in the future to help with the book launch. 

But, what if you walk up to meet someone you’re interested in, but then you notice that standing right next to them is some hot-shot that you’d also love to meet? What do you do? Must you choose one or the other? Will you miss out on an opportunity no matter what?

I don’t think so. 

Here is how things could have played out differently for PR Lady.

“Oh! You’re a bureau! That’s awesome. Will you be around for the rest of the conference?”

“Oh yeah, I’ll be here all day.”

“Great! Because I’d really love to connect with you. I’m so happy that you were here, because I was actually coming over to talk to you,” as she turns to me. “You’re comments and questions were very interesting. I was just curious, are you using a PR firm or looking? You mentioned some PR firm horror stories in your questions. If any of your colleague have been jilted by firms in the past, I’d be happy to talk with them and restore the good name of working with a PR agency.”

And scene.

She would have been able to express her interest in connecting with the squirrel … I mean, bureau… while accomplishing her initial mission to talk with me. Then, later in the conference, she could hunt down the bureau representative and continued the conversation. 

Everyone wins!

Look, this isn’t just theory. I’ve run into the exact same issue that PR Lady did. I have been to conferences where some of my idols appeared in the corner of my eye while talking with someone. But not once, did I ever drop that person like a hot potato just so I could superficially schmooze. Not cool.

Because when you drop someone for the squirrel, you are being rude AND you look desperate to the squirrel.

They see you bolt from one conversation to have face-time with them. That screams desperation and neediness. Not attractive – in business or in bars. 

What I have done, and what works really well, is if the person is walking by, just say “just one second” to the person you’re speaking to. Then, casually touch the arm of your squirrel – which instantly catches their attention – and say, “I’d like to talk to you later. I’ll find you during the next break.” Then, go back to your original conversation.

by John Carr
by John Carr

I have done this so many times, even to the squirrels who had no clue who I was. It didn’t matter. They were intrigued by the confidence of speaking to them, while still communicating I’m not going to drop everything I’m doing right now just to speak with you. 

That is a power move. Especially to powerful people. 

There is a stark contrast between that strategy and the desperate strategy. The desperate approach also leads to a very awkward, rushed conversation. No one knows if or when you’re planning on returning to your original conversation. You’re rush and uncomfortable. Your squirrel is rushed and uncomfortable. And your original target is ticked. 

When you use my strategy, you let your original target know that they are still valuable to you. Plus, when you do finally meet up with your squirrel, they’re more intrigued to talk to you and you have an opportunity for a much more meaningful – and less rushed – conversation.

And since I’m using a dog motif today, remember this:

One day, there was a dog prancing along on a farm so proud and happy because his owner had given him a bone to chew on. The dog wanted to find the perfect place on the farm to enjoy his new treat. So, he trotted over to the pond because it was his favorite place on the farm. As he walked up to the pond, he looked down and saw another dog with a bone in his mouth. Well, he wanted that bone, too. He couldn’t resist the urge to get this new, better looking bone, so he opened his mouth to snatch it from the other dog, and as he did, his bone dropped into the pond, creating ripples that disturbed the reflection that the dog was looking at in the pond.

What are your thoughts? How do you suggest dealing with squirrels at networking events?

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  • Bill

    I can vividly remember something similar to this happening some years ago on live TV in LA. It was before an awards show and a reporter was talking with Lou Gossett Jr. As he’s about to answer her question, Jack Nicholson passes behind her on his way inside. She screams, “Oh my God! It’s Jack Nicholson!” and runs after him, leaving Lou with his mouth open.

    The camera man stay on Lou, who blinks at the cameraman with an expression of, “Did she just do that?” The reported is gone from the shot and Lou nods to the cameraman and walks away. I think they cut back to the desk at that point, but I really don’t remember. But I can still see Mr. Gossett’s expression.

    

   

  


Sharí Alexander is a Speaker, Trainer and Coach who is known for bringing the dark arts of influence into the light - helping business leaders be the positive persuasive power they want to be. 


  

 

   


  

  


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