The Art of Small Talk
Networking events are a necessary part of working in any professional field. Sooner or later you're going to have to stand around with a bunch of people you don't know and think of something to say. These experiences are often boring and can be downright paralyzing, especially if there is someone in the room you want to impress.
And if you’re solo? Not having a friendly face to fall back on when you have no one to talk to makes it even harder. But whether it’s an industry function or a wedding where the only person you know is the bride (both of which are on deck for me in the coming weeks) remember my guidelines for mastering the art of small talk.
I used to get so caught up in trying to think of something brilliant to say, to impress whomever it was I wanted to impress, that I would clam up and say very little. But someone once said to me, “I only do business with people I want to have dinner with.” And that changed my whole approach to networking. Now I rarely talk business, unless I’m specifically asked to. Instead, I consider networking events to be opportunities to connect with likeminded people. Nothing more. Rather than trying to prove you’re the smartest person in the room, just be nice. Be open, warm, genuine and curious. That’s the person everyone wants to talk to anyway.
Do your homework
Know a little something about the people you’re hoping to connect with as it creates an easy jumping off point. “I really enjoyed your podcast on X. What got you interested in that topic?” People love talking about themselves and you’ve immediately validated them by knowing something about their interests or career.
Be a good listener
Be in the moment. Listen for material that provides opportunity for follow up questions and connection. Maybe they mention they’re taking a summer vacation to Europe with the kids and leaving the dog with a friend. Now you know a lot. Do you have kids too? A dog? Been to Europe? Always wanted to go? These are all possible areas where you can find a way to relate. Also, make eye contact and do not look past a person’s shoulder or scan the room. That is the best way to communicate that you’d rather be somewhere else.
Do not give one word answers. Give your listener some material to follow up on. Maybe you’re in a room full of ER doctors and you get asked, “do you work in health care too? ” To which I might respond, “I don’t, I work in communications and I have a colleague who just produced a documentary about ER doctors and I can’t wait to see if it looks anything like the Hollywood version we see on TV. Is that anything like the real thing?” Now I’ve revealed something about myself and given the other person the opportunity to talk more about what they do.
Don’t be a hog
Even if you’ve made a fantastic connection with someone, don’t take up all their time. And don’t spend yours all in one place. Be thankful, promise to get in touch in the future if appropriate and say there is someone else you need to catch up with or that you want to refresh your drink. The whole point of these events to talk to as many people as possible.
We all forget them. It happens to everyone. The best thing to do is admit it. “I’m sorry, but it has completely slipped my mind…”. And of course when meeting someone for the first time, repeat their name once or twice in conversation to help it stick in your brain. When I’m approaching someone I suspect may have forgotten mine, and maybe I’ve forgotten theirs too, I offer the information right away. “Hi it’s good to see you again…I’m Anna.” People are often grateful for the refresh and come back with “yes, of course, Anna…I’m Joe.”
Small talk is most definitely an art and you will get better at it when you practise it in less formal situations. Strike up a conversation with your taxi driver, the check out clerk at the grocery store or the mom at the park. Then walking into a crowd of strangers and making new and useful connections will be a cinch. And before you know it you’ll be owning the room.