I used to hate making small talk. I thought I’d get into a situation where I’d have nothing in common and nothing to say. But then I went through sorority recruitment and learned networking tactics that I still use today. Do I still get nervous when I go to a networking event and don’t know anyone? Absolutely. But I do it anyway because I know that small talk can have a big impact personally and professionally. Here are six tips for better (and more beneficial) small talk.
1. Start by just saying hi.
I’ve always found that the hardest thing to do is to go up to someone and introduce myself. Remember: If they’re at the networking event, they want to meet people, too. Say hello—they’ll probably be relieved that you were the one to start the conversation. “Fellow networkers are just as nervous to meet new people and network, kick it off by offering a small compliment to the person you want to speak with. It will help break the ice and start the conversation,” says Emily Merrell, co-founder and owner of the networking group City Society.
2. Know your elevator pitch.
You’re likely to be asked about your career and interests. Deena Baikowitz, chief networking officer and co-founder of Fireball Network says, “It takes time and preparation to create the perfect pitch. Your pitch will change depending on the situation, your goals, and whom you’re talking to.” The most important thing to remember is that if your pitch is generic, no one will remember it, Baikowitz says. Make sure you add your personality.
3. Have a few go-to questions in your back pocket.
Some of my anti-lull favorites: How did you find out about this event? What do you like to do when you’re not at work? Where did you grow up? People enjoy talking about themselves, so asking one or two open-ended questions can usually get the conversation back on track. Merrell says, “I find it easier to maximize the conversation when I am asking the questions and show a genuine interest in their history.” It helps you find a common denominator.
4. Elaborate on your answers.
When someone asks you a question, add (appropriate) personal anecdotes to keep the conversation flowing naturally. “Talk about significant life experiences, career stories, and accomplishments that will give other people a clear sense of who you are,” recommends Baikowitz. Additionally, she says you should “share stories that will make people remember you as a bright, friendly, interesting professional.”
5. Make introductions.
If someone joins the conversation, make an introduction so they feel welcomed and engaged. Introduce them to the person you were talking to and let them know what you were talking about. For example, say, “Beth, this is Jennifer. Jennifer is a reporter at the New York Times. We were just talking about her recent article about Adele.” Now Beth can join the conversation and explain that she’s listened to “Hello” on repeat approximately 1,000 times. Two added benefits to this approach are that people like hearing their own names and that you’ll be more likely to remember names if you repeat them.
6. Exit gracefully.
You want to meet more than one person, so you need to know how to politely end the conversation. Say something like, “It was so nice to meet you and learn more about your career. I’d love to get your card so we can stay in touch.” If the person is alone, it’s polite to introduce him or her to a colleague or someone else you know at the event before bowing out.