If you’re in a profession, especially a people-driven profession, chances are you will be communicating with others. Small talk is generally deemed as a form of conversation to “scrape by” while your friend gets back from the restroom or you’re painfully waiting for the presentation to begin. Small talk is often viewed as a superficial way of “killing time,” which is absurd because that’s why Angry Birds was invented. Instead, focus on creating meaningful conversations with people. Utilize this time as a way to improve your public speaking skills and strengthen your networks. Humans can be incredibly interesting. Conventions, expos, wedding receptions, award shows, waiting to catch a flight and even daily life situations are all opportunities to practice the art of small talk.
Learn names and use them
This improves memory skills and lets the person know that they are being acknowledged as more than just a “time-killer.”
There are multiple ways to convey engagement. Making eye-contact and smiling makes the conversation more intimate and focused. Don’t be afraid to join in on the conversation by offering your own two cents or a past experience that may relate to the topic.
Let them speak fluidly
In addition to engaging, be mindful not to be the classic “steamroller.” Let them talk and gather the information they are saying before responding. Cutting someone off will most likely lead to them abandoning the conversation. Be respectful of their efforts.
Asking questions shows a high-level of interaction– you are in tuned with what they are saying, and are responding accordingly. Ask questions that you would feel comfortable answering, because 9/10 times the question will be reciprocated. Begin using conversation starters that suck less. Ask about their profession, where they grew up, what they enjoy doing, if they have any goals or dreams for the future, if anything exciting is on their radar. These questions are not only interesting, but it could immediately form common ground between you.
Avoid highly-controversial or sensitive topics
Women’s rights or gun control policies may not be something you want to use off-the-bat, especially being that first impressions are so crucial. You don’t want to have any misconceptions about your character when meeting someone for the first time. However, a trending topic related to your profession may be of intrigue and result in a higher level of interaction. Let’s say you are at a User Interface convention, try something like: “Tomsguide.com released their ratings and the new iPhone was given 5 stars over the new Galaxy Note. Do you prefer either or?”
Pay attention to their posture, and yours
This is a good practice of being self-aware. If you are crossing your arms or looking behind the person talking, you are giving off negative body language which can convey to the person that you are uninterested or worse, bored. Vice-versa, you can also read what they are thinking as well and in turn utilize a polite exit strategy if you feel the conversation dropping off.
Have a polite exit strategy
When you feel that the conversation has gone smoothly and want to end it on a good note, or you genuinely have to leave, make yourself a polite exit. If the person is someone you could see yourself following up with or seemed highly engaged, swap business cards. Leaving something in their hands will offer you a better return rate of connecting later on. When leaving, always assure that you were listening by following up with a recap of something that was said. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. For example: “I am going to join my group again. It was a pleasure talking with you Steve, and I wish your daughter luck at her dance recital Tuesday.”
Not every conversation leads to a harmonic convergence of the stars aligning which in turn births a paramount relationship that could shape the future of your destiny, but it could. Sometimes it’s a way to practice connecting with others, learning something new or brightening someone’s day. It could also mean expanding future resources, picking up new interests or developing a strong business or personal relationship. Next time you feel that you are being thrown into open water with a sea full of sharks, realize that these new faces could potentially be your next business partner, client, advisor or friend. Keep your eyes and ears open, be yourself and genuinely engage in the ancient art of small talk.