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Make Small Talk Big Talk

I find myself tongue-tied and feeling awkward in “small talk” situations like networking events or conferences where I know few people.  How can I become more comfortable and confident?

Most of us do experience an awkwardness, even extroverts like myself, in situations where we don’t know or don’t have an on-going relationship with the people there. But don’t despair! Here are a few tactics to help you get over the “I don’t know what to say or do” from Small Talk Ninja Skills.

  1.  Make the first move.
    Hand out, smile on, greeting ready. When you make the first move, you create some energy and put yourself in a confident position. It takes a little practice if you are uncomfortable doing it, but if you get good at it, then you start the conversation stronger and it makes small talk a little easier.
  2.  Find common ground fast.
    Common ground is some point of life intersection we seek with people we meet for the first time. Geography, education, hobbies, children, sports teams and many others make up the general opening topics of conversation. This is how we connect with people we do not know.  If you have nothing in common, then don’t feel bad about it. They know it too. Make your gracious exit.
  3.  Make an impression, but don’t leave a mark.
    If you let them speak 70% of the time, then you will be thought of as a courteous person good at conversation. The problem is people tend to go to opposite ends of the spectrum of word volume when they are nervous — too much or too little. If you want to make an impression, strive for the middle through questions and comments.
  4.  Have three good questions at the ready.
    You have probably heard that people like to talk about themselves. So instead of worrying about what you will say to others about yourself, focus instead on finding out about the other person or the people in the group. Here are three categories of questions that will activate a conversation.
  • Conversation starters: “What do you do or what area of (……) do you work in? What made you decide to come to this event? What did you think of the presentation?”
  • Observations of change: Ask the person what changes they have seen in a particular area of business, sports, movies or some other topic over the past year. This creates a conversation rather than an interrogation with monosyllabic answers.
  • Future predictions: Ask the person what they believe will happen in the next year on a particular topic. Sports is usually safe and politics usually is risky.  But it really depends on the event and group. The point is to create dialogue and rapport – not disagreement or rancor.
  1.  Plan your exit.
    At a lull in the conversation when it is clear that the topics are exhausted, decide if you want to continue the relationship. If not, put out your hand and say, “It was a pleasure spending a few moments with you, I hope to see you again soon. “Then you simply move on in the room to other people. Or if you do, conclude with what you’re going to do next such as “I ‘ll send you the article we’ve been talking about” or “Let’s set up a time when we can get together to talk further.”

Smart Moves Tip:
Almost all of us have some social obligation that we are less than enthused to attend. Having skills for small talk will give you more confidence and get you through the discomfort. Small talk, in spite of seeming to have little useful purpose, serves many functions. It helps develop positive relationships between friends, work colleagues and new acquaintances. It also paves the way before engaging in more functional topics of conversation with others. By honing these skills for small talk, you will become more confident and may even start enjoying and having fun at these events.

Also See: Are You Building Bridges or Walls? Are You All Ears? Are You Stressed: Find Your Personal Stability Zones

What other suggestions do you have for overcoming the discomfort of small talk? What’s been your experience at meetings and networking events?


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My motto is: “If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got. Therefore, MOVE outside of your comfort zone; that’s where the MAGIC happens. To bring that magic to your leadership and career, visit Marcia’s website Smart Moves Coach and subscribe to “Coaching Clinic” Marcia’s monthly Execubrief with additional insights, intelligence, and inspiration.

Marcia Zidlehttp://www.smartmovescoach.com
Marcia Zidle, The Smart Moves Coach, is a national known board certified coach and keynote leadership speaker who guides organizations that are planning, or in the midst of, ambitious growth and change. As a career strategist, she works with professionals, managers and executives who want to build • shape • brand • change • vitalize their careers. She’s been selected by LinkedIn’s ProFinder as one of the best coaches for 2016!Her clients range from private owned businesses to mid-market companies to professional service firms to NGO’s. With 25 years of management, business consulting and international experience, she brings an expertise in executive and team leadership; employee engagement and innovation; personal and organization change; career building and development; emotional and social intelligence. Your Future Starts Now With Marcia!

3 COMMENTS

  1. I have an interesting lead in. I ask someone what “data” is. Based on their answer, the conversation goes from there. 🙂 I feel the most comfortable talking about what I find most passionate about. I make sure I work those in. Such things include making video games as a kid, AI / robotics, and how data improves both human and business performance.

    • Chris, interesting perspective. I have a different one. I go into a networking event open to meeting people and learn about them – their interests, their experiences, etc. If I can relate something of my own interests/ experiences I do- but the focus is primarily on them.

      • I always find that in every networking conversation, everyone does very similar things. The difference each of us have is what we emphasize and prioritize. In my conversations I emphasize emotion and showing it. I find that this helps lower the guard of people I talk to. They also reciprocate with sharing their own passions and insights. Later on when I see them again, they remember me and how they felt in that last conversation. That sets the ground for have an informational conversation in the future.

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