Small talk. Do these two words send cold shivers down your spine? To some people, engaging in friendly conversations with strangers comes naturally. Others would rather gnaw off their own arm than initiate contact with a person they don’t know.
This summer, I moved from Colorado Springs to San Diego, a city where I had no prior connections. In order to meet people and get involved in the local community, I knew I would have to get out and network. I consider myself approachable and outgoing, but taking that first step in getting to know someone is something I still have to force myself to do.
On the plane heading to the annual conference of the American Translators Association in San Francisco earlier today, I thought about all the networking and small talk that undoubtedly lies ahead over the next few days. So I decided to share some tips and tricks that have helped me in the past – to the point where people now think I am a lot more extroverted than I really am.
1. Use the ARE principle
In his book Effortless Small Talk, Andy Arnott suggests following the ARE Principle. ARE stands for ANCHOR, REVEAL, ENCOURAGE.
The idea is to find an anchor, i.e. some common ground, to initiate or join a conversation. If you are at an industry conference, this shouldn’t be too hard – you might ask a person for directions to your next session or how they liked a speaker whose presentation you just attended. A simple “How are you?” or “What time is it?” can work well, too. The point is to open the door and signal interest in a conversation.
Once you have overcome the initial hurdle of making contact, you need to take the conversation further. Do so by revealing something about yourself, but nothing too personal. If you commented on a speaker, you could add: “I follow him on Twitter, and he always shares the most interesting articles!” This allows you to keep the conversation going.
Finally, you want to encourage the other person to join in. To do so, make sure you use open-ended questions; otherwise, you risk cutting the conversation off with a brief “yes” or “no” that leaves nothing to be added. Examples might be something like, “What got you interested in this subject?” or “How long have you been working in this field?”
2. Don’t be afraid
Being scared of talking to strangers is a silly fear when you really think about it. After all, what do you have to lose? Even if you end up making a fool of yourself or are met with rejection – chances are, you may never see that person again. On the other hand, you have everything to gain! Meeting new people and making new connections are the keys to expanding your network, which is an important part of growing your business. If you’re really anxious, you may want to practice your small talk skills in situations where results don’t matter to you before you try them out at your next business event – in line at the supermarket or at a coffee shop, for example.
3. Pay attention to your conversation partner
People who are really good at small talk usually are also good observers and/or good listeners. By paying attention to the person you are talking to, you can pick up clues about conversation topics. Is the woman across from you wearing cat earrings? She may be an animal lover. Ask her about her pets and you may be surprised how she opens up to you!
Your goal is to listen more than you speak. People naturally like to talk about themselves, and by lending them an active ear, you’re increasing your appeal as a conversation partner. Just don’t be so passive that the exchange becomes one-sided. Arnott recommends striving for a 2:1 ratio, where the other person should be talking twice as much as you.
4. Have an exit strategy
No matter how comfortable you may feel with your new connection, remember that the goal of any networking event is to get to know many different people. There will come a point when you have to part ways, and sometimes, leaving an active conversation can be just as nerve wrecking as trying to enter one. If you are getting short on time or you notice your partner displaying signs of impatience (checking their watch or fidgeting, for example), it may be time to move on.
Of course, you don’t want your new contact to feel like they scared – or bored – you away, so always end the conversation with a smile and a friendly “It’s been great talking to you, but I’m afraid I have to go.” Sometimes, you may even choose to leave in the middle of a good discussion and offer to carry on another time. That way, you have a great reason to exchange business cards! Whatever you do, don’t just walk away during an awkward silence or turn your back on your conversation partner. If you end the encounter on a positive note, your chances of a successful follow-up are infinitely higher.