I have mentioned Darcy Rezac a number of times in this web page because it was he, more than anyone or anything else, that got me out of the house and into networking land.
He has a process called the "Hover" which he uses to approach groups during networking events. As you can imagine, walking into a room with the intention of networking and seeing only people already clustered into groups can be a bit intimidating. Of course you can always wait for the next person to arrive and then do the "ambush" as I mention on the Networking Basics page but if that isn't happening for some reason - the "Hover" is the next best bet.
The Hover is just like it sounds. You approach the group that you want to break into (usually smaller is better, i.e. two, three or four people chatting), and hover just outside their circle. While you hover, you attempt to make eye contact with one of the individuals engaged in the dialog. Eventually they will notice you and at that point they will either open up the circle and let you in...or they won't.
If they notice your eye contact and maintain it, then that is your cue to advance with confidence, introduce yourself and shake everyone's hand. This is a very polite means of increasing the circle.
If they look you in the eye and don't open the circle, i.e. they look immediately back to the group, well then it is time to move our Hover to another group. This group is clearly unworthy of our attention.
Is this hard on the ego? Sure! It really takes some courage to Hover and I don't do it regularly unless I have run out of wall flowers and the event is well underway. Having said that - and Darcy is absolutely correct in this - most people do in fact have the tact and interest to invite you in. You just have to give it a try.
I recommend against the more forceful approach of attempting to inject oneself into a conversation. Some people are good at this but I personally think it is impolite and some conversations are not general in nature but rather are focused on a specific topic of interest to those already assembled.
The real value in the Hover as I see it is that it allows you to introduce yourself to a number of people all at once. Often the next stage is that the original group will splinter off and you will be left with one or two individuals who are genuinely interested in you and vice versa. Hard to go wrong with that!
The key tip here is:
Have the courage to try the hover and the maturity to move on when it doesn't work.
Just as a note of encouragement - I have used it and been very happy with the results. It does not always work but when it does you inevitably end up with a lively group talking about interesting things in which your participation will be appreciated. It's fun!
One final point. Don't forget to hand out business cards. Often people in groups know one another and so haven't bothered, or in many cases, I have found that they don't know each other well and have not thought to do it. In this way, you demonstrate real leadership by inspiring others to exchange contact information.