April 6, 2017

How to Make Small Talk

Yes, it’s possible to stop feeling so awkward

I love knowing people. I hate meeting people.

Successful people have strong networks, but building those networks can be really difficult if you’re an introverted or awkward person.

In the last few years, I’ve gone to a lot of conferences and events with the goal of meeting people and building my network. Even if I’m at a conference to learn from a speaker or take a workshop, I always have the goal of meeting people on my mind as well, because relationships are what will make you truly successful and help you accomplish great things.

But I’m not good at meeting people. When I think about approaching someone to start a conversation, I want to just run the other way and hide in my hotel room.

So I have done a lot of research on how to be good at small talk and getting to know people.

In this post, I want to share the best advice I’ve got — things that you can actually use, that help you really connect with people, and that just might help you feel a little less awkward too.

How to approach someone and start a conversation

For a lot of people, this is the hardest part.

Walking up to someone is scary! But if you’re at a conference or networking event, the good news is that people are expecting it — and actually, most people will be relieved that YOU were the one who did the hard part of approaching them (so that they didn’t have to!).

So while it feels scary, you actually don’t need to feel like you’re doing anything that crazy. All you need to focus on is how to make an amazing first impression. Here are some tips.

Focus on being authentic, not flashy

You don’t need a flashy intro speech in order to start talking to someone. In fact, it’s better if you don’t have one, because it’s kind of inauthentic and off-putting to many people. Remember, you’re here to make real connections, not to perform.

The simplest thing to do is just to walk up to someone and say, “Hi, I’m ____. What’s your name?”

Smile and make eye contact, so you appear friendly and interested. Once they tell you their name, you can ask any number of introductory questions to get the conversation going:

  • What brings you to this conference?
  • How are you doing today?

Some advice-givers say it’s more unique and interesting to ask someone a question that will touch a nerve, like:

  • What’s your passion project?
  • What superpower would you choose if you could pick one?

But in my experience, this can feel really awkward and inauthentic.

People aren’t expecting these questions, and usually don’t know what to say. You don’t want to make people feel stupid by not being able to answer your first question — give them something easy that they can expect and give you a positive answer to. If you feel like being creative later, when you have a little more familiarity with the person, that’s a much more appropriate time to try one of these “strategies”.

But you really can’t go wrong with just being friendly and interested in the other person!

Another great introductory question that everyone will be expecting and ready to answer is this one:

  • What do you do for work?

I once read a blog post with the advice that when you ask someone what they do, you can always respond with “Wow, that sounds hard” as a way to validate the person’s work and keep the conversation going. It’s a great way to get people to talk to you more about why they do what they do and what challenges they are facing.

It makes sense, right? We all think our jobs are hard in some ways, and we are usually grateful when someone actually wants to hear about it. You are giving a rare gift to everyone you meet when you use this strategy — and it’s a great way to dive deeper into conversation.

Use language that entices but doesn’t alienate

People at conferences tend to either undersell or oversell themselves. You want to try to find the middle. When it comes time to talk about yourself, here is how to do it well.

DON’T

A lot of people give the advice to introduce yourself in an intriguing way. They say that instead of calling yourself a marketing consultant, you say “I help entrepreneurs make their dreams come true”, or if you’re a software engineer, you say “I’m building the future”.

Unfortunately, in practice, this is almost always extremely awkward! It sounds like you’re doing a sales pitch and people often don’t really know how to respond.

You want people to be intrigued, not confused. The idea is to get a conversation going, not to leave the other person at a loss for words.

DO

If you want to intrigue someone, you can do it in a much more subtle, approachable way. Instead of trying to make your job sound so impossible irresistible, just think about how you can make your job sound interesting.

Instead of saying, “I’m a writer” — try saying, “I’m an author”.

How can you make your work understandable yet intriguing? How can you turn the many complicated parts of your job into a simple, concise phrase?

You want to convey success and confidence; it is much more powerful to do this subtly, by describing your job in a way that validates it and you, than to force it with attitude or stories about yourself.

Of course, the best thing you can do is to keep your talk about yourself to a minimum. Everyone loves to talk about themselves, so you’ll make the best positive impression when you focus the conversation on the other person and learning about them.

How to keep the conversation going

Once you’ve cleared the hurdle of actually going up to someone to start a conversation, unfortunately, you’ve got a whole new challenge ahead of you: actually making conversation with this new person.

If you tend to freeze or don’t know what to say, you’re not alone.

Here are some tips on making conversation that isn’t boring and that helps the other person feel at ease with you.

Think of things to talk about in advance

This is literally the most life-changing trick I have ever learned about being good at small talk: prepare questions to ask other people in advance.

Conversations with new people don’t always flow naturally, and if you’re nervous at all, it can be hard to think of new things to talk about on the fly. This is where having a list of questions prepared in advance comes in to save the day!

Obviously, you don’t actually want to read questions off a card or anything, but think in advance about 10 questions you can ask people when the conversation drags, so that you are ready in the moment.

The best questions are:

  • Specific (ask “What session are you going to next?” not “So, what’s new?”)
  • Geared towards learning more about the other person, not creating an opportunity for you to talk about yourself
  • Seek longer answers, not short ones (ask “What’s the best conference you’ve been to this year?” not “What city do you live in?”)
  • Appropriate to the setting (don’t ask for dating advice at a professional conference)

Depending on the specific situation, you can steer your questions towards more personal topics or more professional topics.

Personal questions to spark conversation

  • Have you been on any great vacations lately? I’m trying to plan a trip and I just can’t decide where to go.
  • What was the best speaker/presentation you’ve seen today? I haven’t been able to make it to every session and I want to catch up on the videos later on.
  • What blogs do you read? I’m in a rut with what to read about [whatever topic/profession you’re interested in].

Professional questions to spark conversation

I personally love the idea of asking people what their biggest hurdle at work is right now, especially when we’re in a similar business, because it’s a great opportunity to have a deeper conversation.

You might find that their struggle is the same one you’re having, and you can brainstorm solutions or talk about the different things you’ve both tried. Or you might find that their struggle is something you already know about! You could be the person to offer them game-changing advice — which is a great way to be unforgettable.

How to get out of there!

This part is surprisingly difficult.

Not every conversation needs to go on forever. But unfortunately, small talk conversations often end up going on a lot longer because neither person knows how to extricate themselves, which leads to a long, boring, awkward interaction that never ends.

Nobody wants to be rude, so nobody wants to end the conversation.

But knowing how to seamlessly extricate yourself from a conversation is a great way to make a final positive impression on everyone you meet. Remember, this is the last thing they will remember about you!

Make a convincing, friendly excuse

As with most things in life, the more straightforward and honest you are, the easier your life will be.

When you’re ready for a conversation to be over, the other person probably is too, so you don’t need to feel like you’re going to be breaking their heart by walking away. You just need to let them know in  a friendly way that you’re ready to move on!

Here are a few ideas that can get you started:

  • I’m going to head over to lunch/dinner/whatever. It was so nice to meet you! [Note: all of these examples should end with you affirming to the other person that you sincerely enjoyed meeting them and talking to them.]
  • I just spotted my colleague who I’ve been looking for — I need to run and catch him before the next speaker!
  • I’m going to see ____ session, so I should start heading that way now.
  • I just saw a friend I need to go say hi to!
  • I want to type up my notes from the last session before the next one starts, so I should get started on that.

Make plans to chat later on

If you’ve gotten into a really good conversation with someone, making plans to connect again in the future can be a great way to end the interaction on a positive note.

For example:

  • “Wow, thank you so much for all your ideas about ____! I have to run, but I would love to follow up with you. Do you have a card I can take?”
  • “I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I really appreciate your thoughts on ____. What’s your email? I would love to connect with you after the conference!”

Once you’ve gotten the person’s contact information, you can thank them again for the great conversation and reiterate how great it was to meet them. It never hurts to be effusive in your praise of someone, as long as it is expressed sincerely, especially if it’s someone who you potentially want to work with again.

If you’re leaving for good, you can use your phone 🙂

It’s always tempting to want to fake a phone call or pretend you’re late for a meeting as an easy way to get out of a conversation fast. But it can backfire on you, since this person might see you milling around the conference hall 5 minutes later — obviously not on a call or in a meeting.

You don’t want to seem disingenuous or like you just wanted to get away from this person. That makes a bad impression, and one that is likely to last.

However, if this is your last conversation of the day (or before a longer break) and you won’t be seen again by the person you’re talking to, you can use your phone for a swift exit. Try this:

Pull out your phone and check the time quickly. “Sorry, I’m just checking my phone because I just remembered I have to be on a call in 5 minutes. I should probably start heading out so I don’t miss it. It was so wonderful to meet you!”

Don’t use this one often; it’s not the most tactful way to end a conversation. But if you’re really ready to be done and you don’t have any other good ideas for making an exit, we’ll allow you to use this one when you really need it. 🙂

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