There is almost no way to avoid it: If you want to excel at business networking, you have to master the art of small talk.
These ice-breaking conversations are important because they allow you to begin conversations and it’s the first step in connecting with others and forging lasting and meaningful relationships in business.
Are you extroverted? You might have a natural predisposition to small talk. Are you introverted? You might find it a bigger challenge but you are not alone…According to studies about 1/3 of the US population is introvertedlike you, meaning you have a high chance to stand in front another introverted.How do you deal with this situation?
A behavioral study
The starting point is that everyone enjoys small talk. Do not believe it?
Consider a 2014 study performed by psychologists at the University of Chicago. In one experiment, trains riders on a morning commute were asked to: (1) strike up a conversation with a stranger (2) sit alone quietly or (3) just do as they normally did. The group (1) reported having a more enjoyable ride. Another experiment showed that while these commuters were interested to talk to strangers, they believed others did not want to talk to them nearly as much: something called “pluralistic ignorance”. The results of these studies suggest that we do not speak with others despite we actually want to.
“The results of a study performed by psychologists at the University of Chicago suggest that we do not speak with others despite we actually want to.”
Set your purpose and stay focus
Before entering the scene, the most important is to set your objectives. What do you want to get out of this event? Be it a birthday party or an exclusive conference, you will always have an objective for your networking. State it clears it to yourself so your energies will be focused on that.
Reduce anxiety and create the mindset
Introverts may approach small talk with anxiety. Stay rational and positive and influence yourself with phrases like:
- “Just because [XYZ] happened in the past, doesn’t mean it will happen again.”
- “Labels don’t define me. I’m an interesting, worthy person with a lot to contribute.”
- “Everyone needs someone to talk to at networking events. If I strike up a conversation with that person, he or she will probably be glad to have someone to talk to.”
Start thinking of strangers as people who can bring new dimensions to your file, not as persons to be feared. For instance, before you jump into the territory of action (event, party, conference) give a call to a good friend or a family member. You will feel more relax and be better tuned to interact with others.
Keep an “open stance” with your body towards that person without being forceful. Make eye contact, face your shoulders towards that person and do not cross your arms. Casual eye contact and warm friendly smile demonstrate your interest in interaction.
Introduce yourself and do not wait to be introduced. Give a firm but gentle handshake while keeping eye contact and smile. Read more on this article on how to improve your handshaking skills. Something that can often be forgotten is other people names. The key is repetition: “Nice to meet you, Alex”. And if you forget, never fake it.
Starting the conversation
Begin the conversation with statements or questions about the immediate environment, situation, how the person arrived at the location, etc. Compliments are also a great way to start a conversation but make sure you do not abuse and be genuine. Keep things light and positive.
Ask questions and encourage the people to talk about themselves: “The more interest you show in me, the more interesting you become to me”. Ask open-questionssomething like “What got you started in your professional?”, “What are the coming trends in your industry?”, “What is the most interesting fact you have learnt from this conference so far?”. Be original and calibrate your questions based on the environment.
Answers to these questions are often a blind alley. Aim for questions that invite people to tell their stories. Open-ended questions can bring the conversation into a deeper and more authentic territory – where introverts also tend to thrive. “Where are you from”, followed by “What is your hometown like? How is it different than here?”
Channel your curiosity and make sure it is genuine.
The worst thing you can show to the other person is that you are asking questions just to spend few minutes before the buffet starts…if you show true interest, you will invite further discussion and set a positive tone for future interactions. Focus on the other person and less on yourself. You will feel less self-conscious and make the other person feel important. Carefully listen to the other person and think before you speak, it makes you appear thoughtful and may help avoiding a faux-pas.
Some subjects are sensible and should be avoided during small talks. Here a non-exhaustive list:
- Your health or diet habits
- The cost of things
- Personal questions
- Mean gossip
- Off-colour jokes
- Controversial issues, such as politics or religion, when you don’t know the others in the group
Provide multi-faceted responses that can be “hooks” for the other person to continue the conversation. “Where are you from?” Response: “Seattle.” Better response: “I am from Seattle. It does not rain all the time, and I enjoyed the amazing seafood and coffee. There are Starbucks on every corner.
Closing a conversation
Always take the time to close a conversation before walking away from the other person by using a graceful exit line. Something in the line “It’s been great talking with you. I really enjoyed hearing about …”. Do not just walk away.
“Small talk isn’t just about being gregarious or entertaining, it is a gesture of respect.”