Thomas Magnuson and Bill Clinton, ready to work the room.
Thomas Magnuson and Bill Clinton, ready to work the room.

How to work a room

I grew up with a CEO dad. He never played sports with me, and I’m no good with power tools. But he did teach me one of the most valuable things a CEO should know. How to work a room.

I got the specifics one day in 1990 when he was helping the Governor of Idaho as Chairman of the Idaho State Centennial Commission. He and I flew to Boise, Idaho for a reception at the home of Arthur and Jane Oppenheimer, parents of fellow hotel magnate, Seattle based John Oppenheimer.   As we got out of the car outside the reception, my dad said, “Today I’m going to show you how to work a room.”  When we entered the living room, we started first by greeting and thanking the hosts-the most important place to start. Then, we made a circle through the house.

Here are some basic rules on how to work a room.

  1. Keep it moving, Bill Clinton style. If you are a CEO, it’s perfectly expected by people that you need to keep moving, and say hello to lots of people.
  2. Ask people ‘how are you tonight?’ or ‘isn’t this a great party?’ Ask what’s new with family, how is business?
  3. Make eye contact always. Speak slowly and smile. You usually speak faster than you realize.
  4. Ask about non-business things such as personal interests, kids, charities. Stay away from politics and religion at parties.
  5. I know nothing about sports, but I always read the headlines before a big party. It’s not hard to say ‘how about those Red Sox?’
  6. Don’t eat food while working the room. Plenty of time for that later.
  7. Know your headlines, be familiar with economic trends.
  8. Never avoid your enemies, always make a point of saying hello to your competitors. Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.
  9. Keep very detailed files. The more you know, the better.

After awhile at that party, I lost track of my dad. When I found him, he was sitting in a corner near the back cloakroom writing notes furiously on business cards and napkins. He explained that on the plane ride home that night, he was going to dictate letters to all the people he met, and have his assistant input all the addresses and notes about kids, dogs, charities, spouses, etc.

When you make the effort to get to know people, write down their details, you will remember them all. And guess what?

They will remember you too.

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  • Paula K.

    Great picture of you and Bill Clinton! I enjoyed reading this article and all of the expertise advise.

  • Glen Starchman Sr

    Your father was a very special man and a great friend to my family. He was a master of making everyone feel important.

  • Jeff Caven

    More good information! While these points are excellent for business they are very important for anyone developing any relationship. Thanks for tips!

  • Thomas Magnuson

    thanks everyone for the support and encouragement. pls share if you like these tips.

  • Manoj Kansara

    I think I learned something more from your dad story.
    Thank you very much for sharing

  • Joelle Novackowski

    Great read! I believe no matter what type of business you are in, knowing how to “work a room” is vital in being human!

  • Thomas Magnuson

    the hardest part of working a room is just getting started. thanks!