“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/)