Networking is a serious business–you won’t die if you don’t win the game like in the Game of Thrones–but if you don’t play the game, you’ll lose time and money. Enjoy and take home tips from this month’s post by regular guest contributor Dave Baldwin so you won’t lose at networking.

It’s been nearly a month since I started my million-word challenge, partly inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers—as I shared in my June guest post. The experience has been transformative. I’ve come to realize that I’m much more capable of focusing than I believed I was, especially when I engage in a game that centers around my passion. I’m looking forward to continuing the 10,000-hour journey. For now, though, I’m going to return to the central inquiry that underlies all of my blog posts: how can creative professionals make more money from their work? This month, I’m going to look at this question from the perspective of networking events.

Have you ever attended a networking event where the room was filled with different people that you wanted to meet? If so, you appreciate how difficult it can be to make your way through the room, navigating an obstacle course of food trays, chairs, and crowds of people. You also have the added complication of avoiding eye contact with people you don’t really want to talk to, knowing that if they catch you in range, you’ll be forced to stop, smile, and pretend to be interested. Worse yet, you might even find yourself “pinned,” or stuck in an awkward conversation with no easy exit.

There are some people who can’t seem to hear enough of their own voices—and also seem oblivious to other people’s lack of interest in their monologues. I’ve been pinned by people who pitched their businesses for minutes on end without letting me get a word in edgewise. I’ve met depressed people who tried to use me as their counselor as they complained about how bad the economy was. Last but not least, I’ve run into people who took the liberty of educating me (at length) about their political opinions. These people are black holes that suck energy and life force out of you. They have no interest in listening or helping you. You need a system for breaking away from these people as quickly as humanly possible.

Networking is a game, and the game has a number of unspoken rules and protocols. One rule: you can’t be rude or openly snub people. That just isn’t cool. You lose points for spraying food while talking (hence Alice’s post about eating and networking) or shaking hands with sticky fingers (hence my post about serving chicken wings). You win points for meeting the right people. You also win points for deepening your connections with the right people (for example, by learning something of importance about them). Finally, you score big when you introduce two people who become good friends.

Think of a networking event like a football game. The game clock runs for a finite period of time. At the two-minute warning, you’ll want to make sure you’ve finalized any introductions before people walk out the door. Energy vampires steal valuable game time. To score the highest number of points, it helps to have a team in place. The purpose of the team? To help each other stand next to the right people and get far away from the wrong ones. This requires a system of covert signals.

Discrete signals—and their meanings—should be established with your allies before the event begins. For example, if you’re standing next to a clueless blabbermouth, your friend can respond by walking over and interrupting the conversation, ostensibly to introduce you to someone. Conversely, you can develop a set of codes to identify the right people in the room. When you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone who radiates positive energy and your friend is all the way on the opposite side of the room, you need an easy way to signal them to approach you. This may make it slightly easier for them to break away from an undesirable conversation.

Here are a few simple ways that you can signal the people in your circle.

  1. Code words and phrases. This can be helpful if your friend enters a conversation in front of other people. You could, for example, mention something about the weather to indicate that the conversation you are having is pleasant but unimportant.
  2. Adding or removing extra layers of clothing. For example, you could bring a light jacket during the spring or fall. You might set the jacket on the back of a chair to signal that you are engaged and that your friend should approach—or, put it over your arm to signal “get me out of here.”
  3. Standing in specific locations. You might stand next to the food tray as a signal to indicate that you don’t really see anyone in particular to talk to and would like to be introduced to someone. You could stand next to a vending machine to signal “I’m ready to leave when you are.”
  4. Adjusting your stance or posture. Standing with your arms down at your sides, folding your arms over your chest, and folding your hands in front of you can all signal different things. Be careful, though, and pick something you aren’t likely to do unconsciously or as a habit.
  5. Eye movements. If you never break eye contact with the person you’re talking to, this is generally an indicator that you are engaged. Or, you can glance repeatedly at the bathroom to indicate that you need an escort to ensure you are not interrupted on your way there.
  6. Sending text messages—or setting your phone down on a flat surface. Picking up your phone can be a signal. You can pretend to send a text, or you can actually send one to the person across the room. You might want to establish short two- or three-letter text codes. Consider using something like “LOL” as a code, since this phrase appears on the surface to be an innocuous continuation of a private chat.
  7. Eating/drinking, or going to get food/beverages. You might agree with your friends that picking up a food item means one thing, and getting a drink means another. For example, picking up a plate of carrot sticks might signal, “I’m having a great time and don’t want to interrupt my conversations, but I’m starving. Can you come over here and talk to me while I eat some meatballs, and then let me know if I have food stuck in my teeth? I’d like to multitask here.”

You should establish protocols to support your codes and make sure that they work effectively. It helps to create confirmation signals. For example, if you flick your eyes toward your friend once, you can then make a slight hand or body movement to confirm that the signal is real and not accidental. This can also be useful for clarifying communication. For example, the signal for “I’m ready to leave” could be followed with “but I’m not in a hurry” or “ASAP.” Finally, determine if you and your friends will “poll” each other at regular intervals, or if you will use disruptive signals. In a polling system, you’ll want to glance around the room and make eye contact with each friend and give them an opportunity to signal you. In an interrupt system, it is the responsibility of each person to get the attention of their friends. Both have their pros and cons. You’ll probably end up somewhere in between.

Your turn:

Have you ever used secret codes to communicate with your friends on the sly at networking functions? How has it worked for you?

Dave Baldwin is a writer and editor who lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find more of Dave’s writings on his blog about writing, creativity, and business.