Something about the idea of making “small talk” makes me want to vomit. It feels fake and artificial. So how do you start a conversation with complete strangers in a business setting? This is a valuable skill, that I’ve used over and over again. Whether it’s at a career fair, or at some sort of networking reception, the art of making brief conversations with strangers in a way that leaves a positive impression doesn’t come naturally to many people. It will take some practice, but here are some ideas to get your conversation going in the right direction–
Start the conversation by introducing yourself. This is not meant to be your entire life’s story, nor even the 30 second elevator pitch. By introducing yourself, I mean you get to say two concise facts about yourself, and one statement of what you’re after. For example, “I’m a corporate associate with Big Law Firm, here to meet the venture capitalists in the area”; “I’m a junior, studying psychology, and looking for internship opportunities”; “I recently started working for Fancy Investment Bank, but I’m particularly interested in wealth management, and was wondering how your career path led you to manage those sorts of accounts.” Do you see the pattern? You’re approaching complete strangers, so give them a sense of who you are, and give them an easy way to pick up the conversation. People will latch on to the third statement (what you’re after) and that will be the springboard of the conversation, but the fact statements give them insight into who they’re talking with.
Start the conversation by talking about the event, then talk about the non-event. At a conference or workshop, you maybe just heard a motivational speaker. Engage somebody in conversation by commenting on how great that was, or what did you think about such-and-such point?, or is this your first time coming to an event like this? Start out by talking about the event. I recently went to a “ski day” with a bunch of potential clients. Riding the chair lift, I broke the ice (no pun intended) by talking first about the event, how great the snow was, our various experiences with skiing… and then transitioned to talk about non-event topics. For example, “So, how did you come to be involved with your company? Did you ever imagine you’d be in this position? Where did you think your career was headed? Have you collaborated much with those other guys?” Just one of those questions can get the other person talking about their interests and needs. And then you listen. You listen, ask follow-up questions, and listen some more. People (even recruiters) like to feel understood, and that their opinions are valid. Listening will help you accomplish that.
Have an easy-out if the conversation gets awkward. I say this from past experiences where well-meaning folks have asked about my dating life, or about my weight-lifting habits, or I’ve made a blooper about somebody’s marriage when that person is going through divorce. (…ugh. I’m still cringing about that one.) Talking about personal life can help us connect and build relationships of trust. But it’s also very hazardous as, not knowing the people well, we can make some big bloopers and dig ourselves into a hole. Or, as I pointed out earlier, other people may unwittingly breach into an awkward conversation and expect a reply from you. So, have an easy-out for you and for them. You were listening to them earlier, right? What is something they are passionate about or interested in? Can you guide the conversation that direction? And if that doesn’t work, what is something you know a lot about–sports teams, cars, national geographic discoveries…–something that can spawn further conversation? If the conversation gets awkward, take control and shift to a more comfortable topic. You can be in charge without doing all the talking. Provide a prompt (like a question) to segue to another, more comfortable, topic.
How do you master the skill of small talk? PRACTICE. PRACTICE. PRACTICE.