Whether you love it or hate it, you're not going to be able to escape small talk. It happens everywhere we go, and to foster business relationships, it's necessary that you're good at it. Since you only have a few minutes to make an impression, it's crucial to have a conversation that's enjoyable for both.
The good part about small talk is that it's a skill that can be learned through practice. The more you're able to go up to anyone and strike up a conversation with them, the more natural you'll appear. If you can master this fine art, you'll have the ability to build strong relationships anywhere you go. (Try to think about it this way: Every conversation you have is an opportunity.)
So, how can you master the art of small talk?
1. Prepare Topic Points
Before you head to your next networking event, come up with topic points you can chat about. Forget talking about the weather or traffic. It makes you a boring person, and usually the conversation doesn't go anywhere. Instead, have at least three things to talk about depending on the event you're going to, according to Debra Fine in her book The Fine Art of Small Talk. Fine says she also practices answers to the questions “How are you?” or “How are things?” and makes sure her answers allow the conversation to continue.
One of the worst things you can do is come up with topic points during your conversation. You want to keep everything flowing smoothly.
2. Ask "This or That" Questions
If someone is particularly difficult to talk to, give them two options during the conversation, Fine says in her book. For example, you can ask them, "Did you drive in or take the train?" If either of your options are correct, the other person will elaborate by talking about their trip. If neither is correct, the person will correct you with the facts. Whatever the correction is, it will allow you to follow up with further questions.
3. Actively Listen, Find Common Ground
Listen to what people say and, whatever you do, don't interrupt while they're talking. As you're listening, be sure to find common ground in what they're saying and bring these points up. The key to gaining people's interest is to find some kind of common ground that you can relate to. People like doing business with other people who are similar to them.
4. Watch Body Language
While chatting up your new friend, watch what your body is saying. Make sure your face is pleasant by smiling and maintaining eye contact. When you smile, make sure it is a genuine smile.
According to Jean Baur, a career coach and author of the book The Essential Job Interview Handbook, you should try to talk with your hands, since it brings enthusiasm to your message. If you're not used to talking with your hands, try doing this in your everyday conversations. Your hand gestures should be descriptive, but they shouldn't be distracting.
Lastly, make sure you have a good, straight posture, which communicates confidence. "If sitting, always sit in the front half of your seat with both feet on the ground," Baur says. You can lean in slightly with your shoulders back to show that you're interested in what the other person is saying. You should also refrain from habits such as bouncing your legs up and down since this may communicate to others that you're not serious.
5. Make a Smooth Exit
You don't want to spend the entire evening talking to one person, so the key is to make a smooth exit without offending them. There are a few possibilities: You can excuse yourself for a bathroom break or to get some food or a drink or say that you need to catch a colleague before they leave.
If someone joins your conversation, this is a good time to excuse yourself, or if you know the other person, you can make an introduction. According to Barbara Pachter, author of The Essentials Of Business Etiquette, you should start with the person of the higher rank. For example, "Ms. Greater Importance, I would like you to meet Mr. Lesser Importance."
Pachter also explains that you need to be the one talking as you're making the exit, because it allows you to be in control of a much smoother exit. At the end of your conversation, you should include an "exit line," such as "nice to meet you" or "nice talking to you" and say their name, since it shows you took the time to remember it.
Once you've mastered the art of small talk, you'll realize that there are opportunities everywhere you go to simply strike up a conversation with someone. Remember that people like to talk about themselves, so the more questions you ask, the more people will talk. While they're talking, give them your full attention.
The more you practice small talk with strangers in the elevator, on the street, at the grocery store, the more comfortable you'll be at striking up a conversation with a potential business partner or client.
For more insights on getting the most out of networking opportunities, access the exclusive guide, Networking That Works: Connect Your Way to Business Growth.
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This article was originally published on August 7, 2014.