How to Make Small Talk

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“Working the room” is the one business development tactic that strikes the most fear in lawyers. Most lawyers hate finding themselves at a reception at some conference or benefit, where they hope to meet a few new people in a crowd of hundreds. Even when the drinks are free, most lawyers would prefer going to the dentist.

Many lawyers feel awkward and uncomfortable chatting with strangers, in large part because they view small talk as a complete waste of time. Being lawyers, they want some evidence to support the value of chitchat. Well, last month The Wall Street Journal (paywall) ran an article entitled, “The Hidden Benefits of Chitchat.” The article confirmed everything I’ve always thought to be true about small talk. Plus, it contained some helpful hints.

Why is small talk important?

The WSJ article sums it up nicely:

Experts say casual conversation is essential social grease – a ritual that helps us connect with friends, colleagues and people we’ve just met. We can use small talk to signal our friendly intent and to get people to like us. It can lead to more significant conversations that spark friendships and clinch deals.

What are some helpful hints?

To get a conversation going, talk about something you are both observing or experiencing. What brings you to this conference? What did you think of that speaker? Sure taking a long time to get a drink here. An even better tip is to compliment the other person. Nice tie. I like your watch. Tell me about it.

Avoid talking about your favorite topic. People who do that tend to talk too much and dominate the conversation.

Ask questions. People love to talk about themselves or allowed to feel like an expert.

Don’t worry about silence. An occasional lag in the conversation is normal and to be expected.

Alcohol doesn’t make you a better conversationalist (remember those free drinks?). It just makes you think you are.

How do I exit gracefully?

When I’m engaged in small talk, I always find that the toughest part is figuring out how to end the conversation and move on to someone else. No tactic seems to be perfect. The suggestions offered in the article are good, but don’t strike me as perfect, either. They include:

“As much as I’ve enjoyed our conversation, I’ll let you continue with your evening.”

 “Nice chatting with you; let’s stay in touch. Here’s my business card.”

There is no perfect way to end small talk. Good, however, is usually good enough.

Focus on the other person

The most important tip, in both the article and in my opinion, is to focus not on you but on the other person. Remember this short-but-sweet guidance and your chitchat will always be on the mark. “If you talk to the other person about them, they’ll be much more responsive and interested than if you talk about you.”

(image:http://www.flickr.com/photos/drbeachvacation/2628730237/)

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  • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

    Alcohol doesn’t make you a better conversationalist (remember those free drinks?). It just makes you think you are.

    Baloney. A drink or two definitely makes it easier to network and, by extension, improves conversation (especially if you would be too shy to make any without a drink).

    As for how to end small talk, always leave before there is a lull. People will remember impressions, and you want to be someone who they remember as part of a lively conversation, not someone who kept hanging on through the awkward silences that are part of every conversation. Don’t ditch people; just exit with a smile and reasonable excuse while the conversation is still lively but starting to wind down.

  • Lawrence

    Alcohol does not make you a better conversationalist but it does ease your tension making you more likely to start a conversation and more receptive when someone starts a conversation with you. Also, while waiting to get a drink it gives you the opportunity to strike up a conversation.

    I agree with Sam’s points about making your exit and would only add that a good exit is to exchange business cards and to simply say “I know you are here to network so I don’t want to monopolize all of your time this evening. I will drop you an email and maybe we can grab a cup of coffee or something.” Doing this shows your understanding for the other person’s needs at a networking event and sets in motion the next steps in developing a relationship with your new contact. If you feel that this contact doesn’t offer you anything, don’t mention grabbing coffee.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      I get what you’re saying, but when someone ends a conversation with me in the way you suggest, I am likely to drop their business card in the nearest trash can unless I have some other indication that they are genuinely interested in me, not just in getting business from me.

      If you approach networking with a “what can you do for me” attitude, you won’t get much out of it. When I go to “networking events,” my goal is to meet interesting people with whom I have something in common. I’m trying to make friends. I’m not interested in the shallow people who speed date their way around the room, handing out business cards.