I hate small talk.
I’d much rather move things onto far more interesting subjects, as would the people I meet.
Things that are worth spending half an hour chatting about.
Your next big adventure; my love for opera; our views on the best place to go for a whisky in Edinburgh.
What if you wrote down a list of all the things you were interested in and compared that with a random stranger’s list.
You’re bound to find several common interests.
So how do you find that quickly – to turn dreaded networking lunches into great conversations?
What we’re really talking about is a common ground in your communication.
A short-circuit to find that subject of mutual interest, on which you can both relax.
An open question/statement encourages a lengthy answer, which will give you lots of information to work with.
“How do you know the happy couple?”
is the wedding classic.
It works because it’s intrinsically personal.
“Do you live around here?”
is another that prompts a personal response, with follow-on questions easy to ask about work, hobbies, and family.
“What do you do?”
works fine too, but be prepared to have to work on the response.
Many job titles and descriptions are laced with jargon, and few of us are confident enough to ask:
“what’s that, then?”
Avoid direct questions too early on in your communication, like:
“Did you watch the rugby earlier?” or
“Do you have kids?”
If the answer is “no”, you’ll both be looking awkward, and most likely be excusing yourself soon.
You may also end up trekking around awaiting a positive response to your question, and gain a reputation for being “the rugby guy”.
This is something I’ve really had to work on in my communication.
I found out the hard way, asking
“do you have kids?”,
only to be reminded we’d spent the last ten minutes talking about her son’s university application.
The best way to remember information is to really take an interest, rather than just feigning it.
Ask questions that lead you towards subjects you’re interested too, such as:
“My friends were students there, how’s he finding it?”
This is often described as ‘active listening’ – it’s difficult, but really helps to build trust.
Of all the important things to remember, the name is number one.
I find it useful to remember a stranger’s name by relating it to somebody I know, or a character in a TV series.
That way it’s embedded, and you can now confidently introduce that person to others.
A skillful way of making things interesting is to ask questions, to which you have an interesting answer yourself.
For example, if you’ve spent the week learning to play the bagpipes, or you’ve been away trekking in the Andes for the summer, it’s great to ask:
“Have you had a busy week so far?”, or
“Have you been able to get away over the summer?”
They’re standard fare.
But when you’re asked the question back, you’re increasing the chances of finding the common ground through an interesting story or anecdote.
Even if the person fails to ask you the question, it’s now much easier to introduce your interest proactively.
“I’ve spent the summer teaching kids to how to swim”.
Widening out the conversation to include others is a great way of establishing yourself as a leader within a group.
If I see somebody standing awkwardly on the fringe of a conversation, I’ll extend the hand of friendship, introduce myself and introduce the others in the group.
Best to follow this up with an open question based on the discussion you’ve had with the others:
“We were just talking about how nice the venue is – what do you think?”
Positioning is important for this one: you want to make sure you can see and hear everyone.
If you feel the conversation narrowing into a 1-1, widen it out again with an interesting story.
Make sure you continue to make eye contact with the others throughout.
Particularly at networking events, it’s crucial to know what’s going on.
If somebody raises something they wish to discuss, your open questions will only get you so far.
Surround yourself with as much information as you can.
Listening to the local radio station on the way to the venue is a good way to arm yourself with the latest information.
Researching the venue or the hosting company beforehand is useful too.
Avoid giving strong opinions too early, as that can divide your audience irreparably.
It’s very easy to sniff out a white lie, an exaggeration or a mistruth, even with a stranger.
People will make judgments about you quickly, and you want to avoid getting a reputation as being untruthful or exaggerative.
It’s an easy trap to fall into when you’re outside your comfort zone on a topic or feel the need to impress someone.
Instead, keep asking open questions and you’ll get to the topic of interest soon enough.
Doing all of the above is difficult – and the first casualty in your communication can be body language.
Remember to smile when it’s appropriate to do so and to change your tone accordingly.
Smiling gives off the single biggest impression that you’re likable.
Good communication has to have willing on both sides.
If you’re getting little back, you can always head to the bathroom, or to grab a drink.
When I worked my first job in London, I remember having lunch with a senior client and having a great time.
We spoke about all sorts of things over two hours.
But after I’d left, I began to dread returning to the office.
I’d failed to get the information I needed to put a business case together.
If you’re at a business event, remember you’re giving up your time to achieve an objective.
Only leave when you’ve achieved it.
If you want someone’s business card, ask for it.
If you’d like them to meet with you formally, bring out your diary and ask them when they’re free.
Now go forth, and mingle.
Written by Andrew McFarlan, the Managing Director of Pink Elephant Communications. You can view his full profile here.
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