I used to haaaaaate making small talk at networking events or cocktail parties or functions where I didn’t know much about the other guests. I would start off okay, but then after a few minutes my mind would go blank. I was convinced I was embarrassing myself, I would start sweating, and then I’d want to run away from the conversation immediately. Because it made me feel so uncomfortable, I would purposely avoid situations where small talk was necessary. But I know small talk/networking are important parts of business and life, and I knew I needed to get better at doing both. As a result, I’ve really been trying to embrace situations where chatting with people you don’t know well is important.
A few nights ago I was in a prime time small talk situation. I was at a cocktail party/dinner with a lot of important people in the broadcasting industry (the field I’m in). I wanted to talk to these people to learn from them, and also to establish myself more. But holy EFF I was intimidated. After getting through the evening and actually really enjoying myself, I came to realize a few things about small talk and networking:
- Making small talk is like using a muscle, you have to do it more to get stronger at it: When you don’t go to networking events a lot, they seem really horrifying. But the more you do it, the more natural networking becomes. Once you get over the initial “OMG get me out of here” you’ll start to become more relaxed.
- When you listen carefully, it’s not hard to come up with conversation topics: I used to rack my brain trying to figure out what to talk to my conversation partner about. Then I realized that the other person is handing you conversation points on a silver platter as they talk. Do they light up when they bring up their kids? Do they get really jazzed when they talk about traveling abroad? Good. Ask them more about those topics. They’ll be excited and the conversation will flow easily. If you’re not sure what to talk about next, ask them for more details about a topic you’ve already covered. Don’t forget to tell them a little bit about yourself too to help them feel more connected to you.
- When the conversation is slowing down, it’s okay to excuse yourself: Go to the bathroom, get a drink, do whatever. You don’t have to talk to one person for an hour like you’re doing an exclusive one-on-one for CNN. Networking events and cocktail parties are perfect for talking to a lot of different people. Just politely excuse yourself.
- It’s okay to be by yourself: Unlike standing in the high school cafeteria alone, it’s okay if you’re not talking to someone during every second of a networking event. If you find that you’re lacking a conversation partner, hang out by the food table or the bar. People come and go from these spots frequently, so standing in these spots makes it easy to chat with them as they come to grab a plate or another drink.
- Use a drink as a prop: It sounds weird, but I’ve found that holding onto a drink can make you feel more comfortable at an event that’s a little overwhelming. It gives you something to do with your hands, and if there’s a lull in the conversation you can take a sip and focus on what you want to say next.
The last thing I realized is this: people aren’t judging you as closely as you think you are. If you think everyone in the room is scrutinizing your hair and your posture and what you’re doing with your face at that exact moment, they’re not. Just smile and look friendly and people will be inclined to want to talk to you.