Have you ever had that awkward moment, at a networking event, when you know you should be talking and mingling and making business connections, but you can’t think of a thing to say? We all know the feeling of having nothing to say and hours to say it in. You just want to start fiddling with your cell phone and disappear.
I just got back from the annual conference of the Association of Independent Information Professionals, which was held in Denver, Colorado this year. AIIP is an international association of owners of information businesses, and many—like Romainiacs—are using skills and experiences honed from the corporate information center to provide their clients with intelligent information on which to make better informed business decisions. There were many fine presenters, providing insight into useful strategies, and I gained some invaluable connections and had many chances to make small talk with strangers.
The point of this post is to let you know about one presenter in particular—Debra Fine, who spoke on:
The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start A Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Rapport and Leave a Positive Impression.
In her presentation, Debra said that she had once been painfully shy, so networking was hard work for her. As she pointed out, however, there are many talented, educated, and wonderful people in the world that are incredibly shy. Maybe you’re one of them, and you sometimes struggle to engage in conversation when you’d rather just retreat to a far corner. What you need is a strategy for attacking the situation, and Debra had quite a few insights to share.
Here are a few tips and recommendations from Debra:
- Silence is impolite. Find ways to make other people feel comfortable, which, of course helps you feel comfortable, too. At conferences, for example, you can ask if they’ve been to any interesting sessions, if they enjoyed the keynote, or what was the best swag they picked up at the vendor booths.
- Good things come to those who go get them! Tell yourself that it’s up to you to start talking. You will actually be the hero if you start the conversation – even more so if you don’t start talking about the weather or your cats. People will embrace your efforts and appreciate your leadership. The more you practice breaking the ice, the better you get at it, so take the opportunity to improve your skills to size up someone and figure out what to talk about.
- It’s up to you to assume the burden of conversion. The first step in becoming a great conversationalist is become invested in making the other person feel comfortable. I think this tip is incredibly valuable. Putting your colleague at ease shows empathy as well as leadership.
- It’s better to give than receive. We’ve all watched someone frantically paw through their mental Rolodex trying to place us – bail them out before it gets painful! Give them your name, even if it’s someone you’ve met before. By telling them your name, you let them off the hook and they do not have to be distracted trying to remember it.
Here are a few icebreakers to help you get past that awkward, interminable silence—and to help you find interesting intersections that will broaden your relationships.
Ask your new found colleague:
- To describe a typical day on the job. This could lead to talking about your IT team, your computer tools, or some other technology topic quickly.
- What got you interested in social media, earthquakes, or whatever the topic of the day is? This could quickly morph into a discussion about ideas you have in common.
- What separates you and your firm from your competition? For a follow up you could probe to see how your new acquaintance sees their landscape. You could find yourself discussing current events in your field, such as recent mergers and acquisitions.
- What advice would you give to someone just starting in your business? You could advance to discussions about mentoring, education, or simply marvel at the technical skills of the newest members of our profession.
Be interested and interesting.
Nod, agree, and look them in the eye. Someone once described an encounter with former President Bill Clinton, and said that while with him, the President made that person seem like the only other person in the room. What a great feeling – someone who conversed with world leaders and powerful titans of industry was taking the time to actually listen! That one-on-one skill is at the heart of networking. You don’t want to just exchange business cards and slide away – you want to make a connection. If you do, to quote the great Dale Carnegie, you will consistently win friends and influence people.
Good luck! And now can we talk about my cat?