Thursday, 4 p.m. You leave work early to attend a networking event on behalf of your company. Upon arrival, you spot several friends you’ve met through your professional circles and head over to say hello. An hour later, your comfort zone intact, the event is winding down and you have yet to meet anyone new.
For many people, especially those in the early stages of their careers, such events can be intimidating. The prospect of engaging someone new in conversation and not being able to get past initial pleasantries, the wet weather or last week’s Bronco game can be tricky to navigate, particularly in a business setting where you are representing more than just yourself. For some, initiating small talk can range from uninteresting to stressful, but it’s important to remember its value as the potential foundation for a mutually beneficial rapport.
Debra Fine, who authored The Fine Art of Small Talk, calls small talk “the appetizer for any relationship.” Fine points out that quality networking is about looking to build a relationship with someone without knowledge of whether that person is able to help you now or will be able to down the road. Viewing it from this perspective can take the pressure off of small talk and perhaps even make it more enjoyable!
Establishing common ground through a good conversation, even if it’s a brief one, with new people, can truly be an art that, with practice, gets easier and more comfortable with time. In the meantime, below are some quick tips for making the most of small talk as part of becoming a skilled networker.
Think before you (are going to) speak.
Preparation is key! Taking a few minutes before an event to consider the type of people who might be in attendance, or any person you would specifically like to meet, and coming up with a couple of topics to chat about ahead of time can reduce or eliminate your anxiety when it’s time for introductions.
Focus, focus, focus.
Inevitably, conversations can reach dead ends, the anticipation of which can be cringe-worthy. This forces you to be able to think on your feet. The ability to switch gears from work to hobbies, travel, or any other personal interest you may have picked up in the duration of your introduction to a new person requires focus on what the person has been saying more than the stress of what might happen when the conversation reaches a lull.
End on a high note.
Leave your new acquaintance with a positive impression of you by closing out the conversation with politeness and a reference to a commonality you found or any follow-up opportunity, particularly something you feel might help or benefit that person.
Taking a few minutes to think about the people you will be meeting with and, just as important, being an interested and attentive listener in conversations will go far in the enjoyment of small talk.