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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff greets a senior during a campaign stop in Laval, Que., on Thursday morning, April 7, 2011

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

When seeking support on the campaign trail, a candidate's ability to ace endless backyard barbecues, ribbon cuttings and rubber chicken dinners are often as important as where he or she stands on accelerated capital investments. With a federal election just three weeks away (and a crop of prime ministerial prospects who could still stand to sharpen their schmoozing skills), here are some tips on how to hobnob like a political pro.

The early bird gets the endorsement

On the Hill's cocktail circuit, there's no such thing as fashionably late. "If an event goes from 6 to 8, I will often arrive at 10 to 6," says Paul Zed, former New Brunswick MP, ex-strategist for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and conversational savant. You can tackle the 10 people who arrive early, which means 20 fewer ears to bend (about your political platform or your new pottery business) once the room gets busier. Mr. Zed says by the time guests are seated, prime networking time is over. He also advises against making the table rounds - who wants to make small talk when they've got a mouthful of dinner roll?

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Stand near the snacks

Being visible is half the battle. So if you're not willing to be the woman in the giant feather hat, try positioning yourself by the exit or near the food and drink stations. "Eventually, everyone has got to eat or drink or leave," Mr. Zed says.

As for his own on-the-job diet, Mr. Zed eats something either right before or after an event. "It's hard to talk when you're holding on to a chicken skewer," he says. And libations? This is one area where he's staunchly conservative. "I never drink anything but a Perrier with lemon at work functions," Mr. Zed says. If you're wearing the lampshade at the end of the night, no one's going to remember your enlightened opinions about the capital budget.

What's in a name: Everything

For the all-important task of remembering names and details, Mr. Zed uses what he calls memory gems: "So if I'm talking to Courtney and she's chatty, I'll remember C for Courtney, C for chatty. It works." Remembering what a person does for a living, whether they have kids and anything else you discussed the previous time you met is a great way to earn votes. Or brownie points.

Know how to redirect

If you find yourself stuck in a conversation and can see others are waiting to speak with you, Mr. Zed suggests opening up the party, a trick he picked up from former New Brunswick premier Hugh John Flemming. If you're talking to Marcy and you want to be talking to Paul and Dan, you say: "Paul and Dan, have you met my friend Marcy?" This way everyone's included, no one is offended and you're repeating everyone's name - a great way to retain the information.

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When in doubt, be a good listener

In this sense a schmooze opportunity is no different than a first date. Studies show we're drawn to people who take a genuine interest in us and turned off by anyone who talks too much about himself or herself. So save the tales of the big high-school touchdown and try asking a few questions. "I will always take an interest in whoever I'm talking to, whether it's asking about their job or the town they grew up in," Mr. Zed says. "I'm lucky because I'm a people person and my interest is always genuine." And if yours isn't? Faking it can be as useful in the parlour as it is in the boudoir.

* And don't do this: use sarcastic humour. The tap-dancing fool with a bad comb-over is somebody's spouse, and you could be talking to her.

Special to the Globe and Mail

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