By: Lois Kirkpatrick
Let’s face it: sooner or later, you’re going to have to work a room. Growing a business requires meeting other people who can help you succeed. You might meet those people at a happy hour, a showcase for potential investors, or at the gym, but learning to get past “hello” is a must. So how do you break the ice?
A lot of people hate small talk. It can feel insincere and awkward. But remember: Apple wasn’t built in a day, and neither are strong business alliances. You’ve got to help people want to do business with you. Small talk allows them to get to know you and develop a level of comfort with you.
Do This, Not That
Good small talk starts long before you find yourself at a networking event. Make a habit of reading interesting blogs, trying new activities, experimenting with different hobbies, and keeping up on current events. This will stuff your mental backpack with lots of conversational tidbits you can pull out when you meet somebody new.
When you find yourself in a potential networking situation, keep these things in mind:
- Don’t put extra pressure on yourself. You’re not running for office, you’re just making business connections. The point is to have positive interactions that could eventually lead to finding a great hire, a new customer or a potential investor. Don’t feel pressured to be the most charming, witty chat-meister in the universe.
- Miss Manners is right: Don’t ever talk about sex, politics or religion in a casual social setting. And while you’re at it, avoid TMI, too. Even if your conversation partner happens to be a therapist, chaplain or health care professional, he or she is off the clock at a networking event. Schedule an office visit if you have something serious to address.
- Avoid the extremes of clinging to the wall or trying to become BFFs with everyone in the room. Decide on a reasonable number of people to engage with – say, four to seven. Commit to talking with each person for at least five minutes, and if it hasn’t developed into something interesting by then, feel free to move on.
Smile, Shake Hands, Then What?
Start your networking interaction by asking good questions. A good question is open-ended, which means it can’t be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.”
Go for the easy info first: learn the person’s name and where he or she works. These two facts alone can be good for several minutes of conversation, especially if the person has a name you’re unfamiliar with, or works in a job related to your business.
Be sure to respond with your own information so that you create a two-way conversation. It’s tempting to fire off question after question until you find something you have in common, but that can make the other person feel interrogated.
Try to steer the conversation toward a topic you enjoy. Talking about your favorite subjects makes you more relaxed and engaging.
For example, if the other person comments on the event’s refreshments, you can bring up the Indian cooking class you love. If the other person’s jacket reminds you of something similar your favorite actor wore, it can provide the opening for talking about great films and TV shows. Being interested helps make you interesting, and that makes the conversation more lively and fun.
Remember your goal is to meet several people per event, which means at some point to have to graciously exit the conversation. An easy way to do that is to say, “I want to make sure to meet several people at this event; do you know anyone here you could introduce me to?”
Or you can do the reverse, and introduce the person to someone else you know at the event.
Either way, when it’s time to move on, be sure to end the encounter on a positive note. Say something friendly like, “Thanks for talking with me, have a great rest of the evening!”
Ideally, you will have made a connection and found a way to be mutually beneficial to each other’s careers. In that case, be sure to reiterate any follow-ups you promised (and make sure to actually follow up!): “Great meeting you, and I’ll email you that article in the morning.”
What Works for You?
Do you have any great networking tips that work well for you? Share them in the comments below, or email them to us at