“How are you?” “What did you get up to at the weekend?” “Have you tried the vol-u-vents?” (Yes they have made a comeback, I have seen them in Sainsburys)
Small talk. It’s tentacles are everywhere, boring the pants off conversational recipients. Who actually enjoys this tedious exchange of so-called pleasantries? Your hairdresser? Your colleagues, your latest Tinder match? How many times a day/week are you subjected to, or are subjecting another to the confines of perfunctory phrases such as “How are you?” and truly meant those three words? Was the reply each time an equally perfunctory “Fine/good thanks, how are you?”. Thought so.
This impending mediocrity is looming as you have a 3 hour networking event coming up to get through. However are you going to survive the tedium, make those great connections and secure some potential business prospects?
Avoid the smalltalk!! Okay that’s unlikely, sorry. None of us can fully escape the clutches of small talk. Annoyingly, it is there to serve as a sociological function to connect people, creating common bonds between human beings and filling in those gaps of awkward silence. Deep down most people know that. You can’t avoid it, someone is bound to ask you about your weekend. What you can do however with small talk, is acknowledge it’s existence but swerve it without entertaining it…at least not too much. You’re (hopefully) going to be meeting several, wonderful and interesting people at your networking event. This can either be viewed as several people to try and get through generic chitter-chatter with OR several people with whom you can impress, enlighten and engage with your conversational skills; Thus, in turn, giving them the opportunity to impress you with theirs. Knowing how to step out of the mundane and employ a new way of asking engaging questions to your fellow networkers is the key to surviving the networking slog. Ask yourself…
1) “What am I hoping to gain from my networking tribe?” 2) “Am I really going to achieve that by asking them how their train journey was and what the weather is like?”
In short, no. A train journey is a means to an end. A person didn’t take a train so that they could make a conversation out of it, they took a train because it was necessary. As for the weather, Who cares! We have eyes and windows and for those who don’t there is Google. The problem (aside from being dull) with asking people about travel and weather conditions is that it tells you zip, zero, zilch about who they are and that is the nugget of gold you want to get to. Who they are. Not just who they are but also what drives them, what their passions are, what is it that makes them get out of bed in the morning to build their empire. If the answer to this is Jeremy Kyle then maybe make a polite excuse and leave – more on that later. Before I risk dividing anyone on the subject of socio or political taste let’s look at some of golden rules regarding keeping questions engaging.
RULE NUMBER ONE: Keep them open-ended. Open questions invite a person to give expansion to their answers. If you have asked them about their business, if it’s their passion, then they want to tell you about it. Most people would prefer to talk about themselves than find ways to ask about others. The more they talk, the more information you will get to build your framework of non-generic questions. If they allow to get a word in that is.
RULE NUMBER TWO: Look for the non-verbal cues. Here is where you can become the best darn-tooting listener at your event. When talking passionately, people will always give away non-verbal clues, the eyes may widen when they hit on a particular topic. Use that. When you are given an opportunity to speak say “Oh I noticed how your face lit up when you spoke about that”. People love to be noticed, acknowledged and listened to. They will pay attention to your attention paying. Your interest will not go unnoticed. In a reciprocal manner they will show interest in you and your business and the driving force behind it. There have been studies (apparently) which have shown that the more a person talks about themselves to you, they more they value you. Congratulations! you are now the networking equivalent of an ice-cream seller on the hottest day of the year.
RULE NUMBER THREE: Ask for the story, not the synopsis. In a similar vein to asking open-ended questions, instead of asking what they do for a living, ask how and why they got into it. “So tell me me how you got into your line of work?”. You are still showing interest in their work or business but the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ gives them a chance to add some background, colour and sparkle as well as a bit of insight into their personality style. Everyone has an interesting story to tell, they are just waiting for an opportunity to tell it – make the person they tell it to you!
RULE NUMBER FOUR: Talk to people as though they are friends not strangers. It’s not all about questions. Some people may use small talk purely out of shyness or nerves in social situations and that’s okay we are not all social butterflies. Some people need encouragement. If someone is giving you those nervy vibes adjust your energy as if you have known them a little while. I am not suggesting you slap them on the back or give them a hug, you might get escorted out by security – please don’t be that person. Keep the conversation light, maybe share a story you would share with your friends, Not of a time which was embarrassing or that involves alcohol! Keep it appropriate and show them there is more to you than just business. They might be a first time networker and need a bit of friendly security. Compliment them on their outfit or shoes, find something. People generally respond well to compliments. Be sincere with them though, people can also sense a phoney and that builds distrust. Build the rapport and the rest should naturally follow.
RULE NUMBER FIVE: Be authentic. We have a habit of sacrificing our true selves, thoughts and feelings in an effort to remain socially polite. What is deemed polite? Small talk! Safe, comfortable, inoffensive, boring, boring, boring small talk. Be aware, you are an hour into your event and the same questions have been regurgitating around the room like the smell from a bad air freshener. People are starting to tire of answering the same old stuff. Some have probably already gone home. You need to make those connections early. Make a light joke “Hey, you know what’s worse than these vol-u-vents? Small talk! nice to meet you…”. See how they react, you might get a laugh. Maybe you’ll make a common bond over terrible pastry and a questionable king prawn. Again, keep it authentic, if you are not comfortable with cracking a joke, don’t do it, always plays to your strengths. If you you are natural at comedy and get a good reaction – great! If the response you’ve gotten is “My partner made those vol-u-vents” then maybe consider moving on…
WHEN TO EXIT STAGE LEFT: There will be times when, through no fault of your own, the conversation is drier than a cream cracker in the Sahara desert. Maybe you’ve been the victim of the evil cut-and –runner. You were introduced to someone, who only speaks in one liners, by a colleague who then quickly makes their escape leaving you hanging. Thanks for that. Make a mental note and plot your revenge later. So you’re stuck. This person clearly does not want to be there or talk to you. They are looking around the room, making no eye contact and shuffling their feet uncomfortably. The conversation has not only hit the wall but the row of trees behind it and a couple of unsuspecting dog-walkers. On the other hand, maybe you’ve been stuck with Mr & Mrs Boreflake. They just love to talk and man do you know it because they’ve droned on about bog-all for 15 minutes giving you no indication they are interested in the windmills of your own mind. You’ve made your decision – you are out of there. But how?? You don’t want to offend them but yet you have no desire to spend another 15 minutes look at their holiday snaps. Pick one of the following (or create your own)
“Sorry, you must excuse me, I… a) “Have just seen my colleague and I need to ask him something” b) “Must dash to the bathroom” c) “Can see they are about to run out of Vol-u-Vents and I’m scared”
All the while exaggerating facial expressions, and doing that head-tilt or closed smile thing we do when we want to appear polite but can’t wait to get out of there. It’s fooling no-one of course and granted it’s not exactly in line with being authentic but sometimes needs must. At least now you’re home free to wax lyrical with other people who value you and your time.