I was raised in a family that did not teach me “small talk.” In fact my Dad thought the whole idea of small talk was a waste of time. He was an electrical engineer and a physics professor, and in the 1970s he developed some of the underlying patents for the flat panel TVs that are everywhere now. In the course of his career he went from jobs at Raytheon and Zenith to his own business. When he developed his own business he needed to interact with people at conferences and in business meetings, and he needed to be able to start up and develop a connection with other people. Knowing how to make small talk can help with that. Dad finally realized that small talk was worth learning about because it’s a skill you need for business development.
When I counsel clients who are nervous or shy and who are going to a conference, I tell them to do a little preparation and also to keep some ideas in mind that can make casual conversation a lot easier.
Before you go to a conference, make a conscious effort to become more knowledgeable about trending topics in your industry as well as sports, world news, and celebrity news. If you have information, ideas, and opinions about issues that are likely to be talked about, you can contribute to the conversation.
Use the Spanish Treasure Chest Idea
Like a treasure chest lying at the bottom of the sea next to a Spanish galleon, you have no idea what’s inside until you open it. Sure, it could be dead fish or sand in there but it might also be doubloons and treasure. You cannot tell until you get the box open. Just like a Spanish treasure chest, everyone you meet is a black box of possibility. You have no idea who this person is or who this person knows or what this person might know about that could make your life better. If you take the attitude that each and every new person you meet might be treasure, you have the right mindset to go to a conference! Your mindset matters a lot. If you are open and interested in other people, it is far more likely that you will have a good experience at a meet and greet. Your body language will convey positivity and people really resonate with that vibe.
Have a Plan
One of the hardest parts of a conference is that first approach, where you come into a room and do not know anyone. And there is always that group of people knotted together who know each other and are talking in an animated way. Most people dread that experience! And some of my shy clients who encounter a tight-knit group of people talking together have actually fled the meeting and retreated to the safety of their hotel rooms. But if you have a plan you can deal with this. As you approach the group, look for a person who is more on the outskirts. Walk up to that person and extend your hand. No one will not shake your hand. Introduce yourself and the other person will do the same.
Have Some “Go To” Questions
You want to have questions that are in your toolbox. These are open-ended questions to ask other people that help you to jump start a casual conversation. People like to talk about themselves and give advice, so many of the questions I recommend are ones that elicit that kind of response. Here are some for your toolbox:
“Is this the first time you have come to this conference?”
“How are you enjoying the conference?”
“Have you heard any good speakers so far?”
“Do you have any ideas about which of the break-out sessions will be good?”
“Where do you work?”
“What do you do?”
“Are you here with a group? Which one?”
Once you are into a conversation, ask simple open-ended follow up questions. Open-ended questions are ones that invite the speaker to say more, describe more, advise, or educate you about something. Ask about the person’s own educational and work background and what they do at their job. Ask about whether there is a good restaurant to go to for dinner or breakfast. Ask about a sightseeing tour that participants can take, and if they’ve taken the tour and how did they like it.
Imagine you are a journalist. It is your job to find out about this person and this event by asking questions so that you can write your story.
Once you have a conversation going with someone, try to think of ways that you can make this person’s life better. Gifts of information, advice, support, and connection with other people are ways to deepen the friendship you have begun. A gift of information could be something as simple as providing a link to an article that could be useful based on the conversation you have been having, or information about a good restaurant or nearby ice cream shop. Advice that you can provide can be a gift (“If you are looking for conference room “C” I can tell you where it is. It’s hard to find!”). Being supportive of someone is a gift (“Oh no, the airlines lost your bag and that’s why you are waiting here by the front desk? That’s so frustrating!”). And connecting people who can benefit from that introduction is another great way to be generous. (“I just met someone in your niche and she is terrific. Do you know—-? I think the two of you will really enjoy getting to know each other. I’ll contact her to see if she is open to getting together for coffee if you have time for that.”) Always give the person an out if he or she might not want to make that connection happen.
Know How to Disengage
Another problem people encounter at meet and greet events is how to leave a conversation and move to another one. One good way to do it is to say, “I’ve had a wonderful time talking with you. I am so glad we had the chance to meet! Here is my card. Do you have one too? I don’t want to take up all your time talking with me even though it has been a lot of fun. Maybe I will see you at that break-out session tomorrow.” Then move away, find the next person you want to meet and put out your hand.
Many of my nervous clients are able to enjoy meeting people instead of dreading it when they use these basic concepts to engage in casual conversation.