The first time I did a networking event, I did not know what to do. So I just stood somewhere alone in an empty space. That of course, was not the right approach.
Luckily, this was an event where there were professional coaches present. Let me explain that: I was trying to get into a special schooling program. The program's goal was to re-school people with a university degree (but without a job in their field of expertise) to software engineers. The goal of the event was that each person would talk to several recruiters, because you had to have a place to do an internship and later work, before you were allowed in. This was because the company that offered you the internship was expected to pay half of the tuition fees. To help candidates that were having trouble, a professional coach was supervising and contacted those people that seemed to have trouble navigating the event.
When she saw me standing alone, she came to me and asked me why I was not even near one of the recruiters. My reply was that there already where several groups, and I did not want to disturb anyone. Here's what she advised me to do:
- Pick a group.
- Stand near that group, and listen to what they are talking about.
- If the topic interest you and you are certain you can attribute to the conversation, wait for that moment in the conversation where there is a chance to ask a related question/comment.
- Don't be ashamed, and ask that question/make that comment. It doesn't really matter if you are standing a little outside their group. Once they recognise that you are interested in their conversation and you have something to add to it, they will make room for you to join their circle. (If not, they are clique-ish people and you will have to ask yourself if you really want to join them, given the effort that such an attempt takes)
- Once you have successfully made others aware of your presence, especially at events like this, they will include you in their conversation. If they ignore you, listen carefully to what they are saying. Try again, and if you still can't get in, give up on that group for a while.
- Always remember whom you would have liked to talk to from that group though. If the 'contents' of the group change, as they are likely to do at such events, you can seek the interesting person out again when they are in another group, and attempt contact again.
So, long story short: Hover near a group that you find interesting, pay attention to their current subject of conversation, and ask a relevant question/ make a relevant comment. If asking a question, an "Excuse me, but I heard you were talking about X, (and then your question)" is the most polite way to do something.
Joining by making a relevant comment is much harder. Although the coach told me this is possible, I don't have any experience with that yet. I usually play safe, and ask the relevant question in the polite way.