Networking: Mastering the Art of Small Talk
Do you want to know what I consider a form of torture?
Walking into an event knowing I am going to spend the next few hours making polite conversation with lots of strangers, all while trying to seem like I am having a good time.
This remains one of my biggest struggles both personally and professionally. I used to get so nervous when I would have to speak to people I didn’t know. And when it came to making small talk with a group of important professionals I would actually tremble and sweat no matter what I did beforehand to prepare.
Even today, networking is one of my least favorite things to do. I’m not naturally comfortable with people I don’t know, or being in big groups, and I often struggle to come up with things to say. Plus, whenever there are awkward pauses, I feel the need to fill them and end up speaking way too fast (and often too much)!
But we all do need other people in order to succeed. And this is a good thing – building strong relationships and meeting new, interesting people is good for us – but when you’re not the most socially adept, it can feel like an impossible task.
Luckily, I’ve gotten much better at making small talk and meeting new people in the last few years, and I wanted to create a guide to help you improve your abilities too. Because once you can get in control of your fear and discomfort, you’ll discover how it can open doors for you.
(image source: someecards.com)
Step #1: Stop hating small talk
Sure, you can grit your teeth and force yourself to get through networking events for the rest of your life if you really want to. But it will be so much easier if you can learn to turn the art of conversation into something less painful, or maybe even something you look forward to.
Reframing is a powerful tool. So instead of looking at small talk as something you have to do even though you hate it, why not look at it through a different lens?
For example, part of the reason you go to networking events, meetups, business dinners, conferences, and everything else, is because you want to improve your career. When I moved into a management role, I knew it was really important for me to get more comfortable talking to people if I was going to be good at my job (it isn’t good to be the one dodging 1:1s). So in my mind, I was able to view these conversations as “part of my job.” I’ve always been someone who strives to be the best at their job, so by thinking of networking in that way, it helped me see it as a challenge I wanted to overcome. Part of my career development, if you will.
Maybe you are looking for a change in your career. Talking to new people is one of the best ways to not only learn about a new field, but also to get a job in that field (as the vast majority of jobs are unadvertised and given to people with personal and professional connections to the company over people who just send in a resume).
Try to think of networking as a positive; try to imagine the good things that can happen because of it, rather than the tortuous feelings it brings about. What can networking help you do? Who do you want to meet? Simply changing your perception can eliminate some of your biggest fears and hesitations.
Step #2: Getting better at small talk
Hopefully you see this as a challenge or pursuit that you find interesting or engaging. But even then, for a lot of introverts, it’s still a challenge to figure out how to get started and “do small talk” correctly. For a lot of us, it feels unnatural to just walk up to a group and start talking, so I put together some tips drawing on lots of resources and my own experience, to help you improve your conversational skills.
One of the biggest problems for introverts can be just saying “hello” and inviting someone to talk. If someone comes up and talks to you first, that’s great; but how do you work up the nerve to walk over to someone and start a conversation yourself?
It’s scary, definitely. But if you want to network, you’ve got to decide to do it in spite of your fear. Think of the old saying, “Courage is being afraid but doing it anyway.” It might never feel natural, but you’ve got to fake it to make it.
Here are a couple of tricks I use to help strike up a conversation with new people:
- Notice them specifically.
Have you been wanting to meet with a particular executive and he’s right across the room? Wait until he is alone or talking to someone you know, and introduce yourself. You can say, “Hi, I’m Kate. [I have been following your work / I read your book / I saw your speech at the conference], and I just wanted to introduce myself. I really love your work.” They will be flattered you know them, and you’ll have quickly broken the ice. Have some specifics or details can he helpful too, so be sure to do your homework.
- Notice them generally.
If you’re stuck with no one to talk to, find someone else who’s on their own and take note of them out loud. This can be something like a compliment about their clothes or asking what they think of the food. Don’t make it a general comment or complaint (like “It’s cold in here!”) since this doesn’t naturally lead into a conversation and you’ll probably just get a nod or smile in response. Instead, noticing their clothes or asking their opinion on something engages them and gives them something to talk about with you, so you have started a dialog.
- Just say hi.
When in doubt, just say “hi”, shake hands, and introduce yourself to someone nearby you. If you go blank and can’t think of anything to say, just ask them what they do or how they are. It might be boring, but the worst thing you can do at a networking event is nothing. One awkward conversation won’t kill you, and the other person won’t remember it five minutes later. Plus, the conversation may take off in spite of its slow beginning – which is far better than skipping the interaction out of fear.
- Psst..remember peacocking?
If you want to encourage more people to come up and talk to you (so you don’t have to start as many conversations yourself), remember the power of drawing people in by peacocking. This means wearing some interesting accessory or outfit that catches people’s eye and makes them want to ask you about it. Strategies like this subconsciously invite people to come talk to you and give you an immediate topic of conversation.
(image source: savagechickens.com)
So now that you’re talking, how can you make sure it counts? Try employing some of these tips before and during your networking events to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible.
Have you ever seen an awkward character on a TV show or movie bring along note cards with conversation topics written on them to a date? Well, this is actually not a bad strategy. I don’t recommend actually bringing notes with you to an event, but getting prepared is one of the most important and helpful things you can do when you struggle with knowing what to say to new people.
With Facebook, Twitter, Google trends, and so many other resources at your fingertips, you can get up to speed with current events and popular topics in a matter of minutes before heading to a networking event. Try to come up with 3-5 popular topics you can bring up if you can’t think of something to say. Write them out, and practice asking or talking about them out loud.
Take stock of interesting things going on in your own life now too. Do you do a sport or are you training for a race? Are you a blogger or are you building a new project outside of work? Did you just learn an interesting new skill? These things can be hard to think of on the fly when someone asks what you’re up to, so it’s good to give them some thought ahead of time so they are fresh in your mind when someone asks. (Saying you’re up to “nothing much” is a pretty quick way to end a conversation, so it’s good to have these at the ready.)
Are you going to be meeting with a specific group or person at the event? If you’re going to a business dinner with new clients, read up on their website, check their company Twitter, and read up on the individuals you’ll be meeting with too. If you know something about them in advance, you can ask them more specific questions and talk about topics you already know they care about – which is a great way to get people talking.
- Avoid “finding something to do”.
While it can be a relief to have something to do with your hands, be wary of getting sucked into a task and using it as an excuse not to talk to anyone. It’s very possible to be in a crowd of people all night and not make a connection with anyone – I’ve done it before, and it’s not very satisfying! If you went there to network, you’ll be disappointed if you spent all night glued to your iPhone. Try to avoid isolating yourself by appearing busy.
- Listen to your body.
I mentioned earlier that I used to have huge physical reactions to being nervous: my heart would pound and I would get tense and flushed (and sometimes sweaty – in fact I still take care picking out my clothes just in case I get nervous). Learning to tune into my body’s reactions was an immensely helpful technique I started using to calm myself down in situations like this.
The key is to become aware of your body and your surroundings when feelings of stress start to rise. Then you can focus on your breathing to slow it down and un-tense your body and start behaving more naturally. In many ways learning to get comfortable with discomfort was a huge thing for me (and I picked up some tips from the book the Charisma Myth; where you focus on the sensation so intensely, that your mind takes control of the situation and the discomfort passes. See the Delving into Sensations exercise on the author’s page to practice yourself). Check in with yourself before you head in, and throughout, an event to stay on top of your physical presence and reactions.
Extra tip: Be aware of your body language too. Slumped shoulders and crossed arms communicate to people that you’re closed off and makes you seem harder to talk to and connect with. Remember to smile (it’s okay to practice in the mirror before!) and stand confidently. Try holding something in your hands (it helps to have your hands occupied) like a notebook, small handbag, or a glass, but make sure to keep one hand free enough that you can shake with people you meet.
- Bring an extrovert.
I always try to bring along an outgoing ally when I head into a small talk situation. It’s great to have a buddy like this on your side, since they can easily walk up to people and start talking so you don’t have to. Just make sure you’re pulling your weight too; even if your friend gets the conversation started, be sure you are contributing and not shying away because the pressure is off.
Going to events with an outgoing friend is also a great way to learn small talk skills firsthand. I love watching the simple things extroverts do to make people feel comfortable and excited to talk to them, and then putting their techniques into practice myself. My friend Sarah Bird is amazing at events; she is so magnetic and can walk up and make conversations with just about anyone. I hope one day I can be just like her (in many other ways too!).
Of course, you want to always be yourself and not try to pretend to be a naturally gregarious extrovert (it’s impossible to maintain, since introverts find that kind of interaction draining), but you can learn things like eye contact, confident body language, and other skills by mirroring the extroverts around you.
- Ask questions.
Everybody’s favorite topic is themselves, so capitalize on this by becoming someone who asks smart, interesting questions. So much of the conversation that goes on at networking functions is just people waiting for their turn to talk. You’ll be amazed at the positive response you’ll get from being the person asking genuine questions.
Asking questions is a great way to start a conversation with someone you don’t know. Always have a question at the ready for when you meet a new person, and try to make it something other than, “So what do you do?”. Ask their opinion of the art on the walls, ask if they’ve been to this venue before, what they think about a current event – anything to get them talking. This takes the pressure off of you to think of something to say, and makes the other person feel like you’re interested in getting to know them.
Another great line of questioning is something that will elicit passionate or positive responses. If you know a bit about them (their passions, hobbies, or causes) then that may provide fodder question, but if not, I always steer towards vacation or travel. Asking people about their favorite trips, or places they really want to visit and why, is a great way to learn about new places and most people have some fun and exciting stories to tell from their adventures.
- Listen visibly.
Introverts are good listeners, but we don’t always look like it. Lots of us are uncomfortable with eye contact, and we don’t naturally nod along or smile at other people when they’re talking. Being a good listener is often one of an introvert’s biggest strengths, so make sure the people you meet with understand that you’re listening well.
Along with smiling, nodding, and eye contact, you can demonstrate to people that you’re listening by asking thoughtful follow-up questions. This is where introverts can shine in social situations, since not all of us are eager to talk about ourselves; instead, take note of details when someone is speaking and you can impress them by asking more about something they said.
- Take a break.
Being “on” and making small talk depletes an introverts energy (that’s what defines introverts, after all). So give yourself permission to take small breaks from time to time so that you don’t run out of gas half way through an event.You are allowed to split from the group and grab some alone time every once in awhile. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need to collect your thoughts, just excuse yourself to the bathroom or get some air outside. It’s better to take a short break and return than to get so overwhelmed you just shut down.
You can take a break by chatting up a big talker too. These are the people who, once you get them going, they’ll talk all night – and they are great to know when you need a break from talking for a while. Give yourself permission to relax while you listen to someone tell a long story, and you’ll be able to recharge a bit before engaging again with the group.
Do you have other tips, ideas or references?
How about some questions that are fail safes and always seem to generate good conversation?
If so, put them in the comments – I would love to share some notes and ideas 🙂