How to avoid small talk when networking

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There is nothing worse than the awkward silence when you meet someone for the first time and you’re both left standing there not knowing what to say next.

Whilst you can fall into the familiar territory of asking what they do (which is always great for networking and building your career) what do you say after that? How can you keep the conversation flowing naturally without wandering into the mindless small talk zone?

You might be tempted to just bail on social situations or networking altogether but when it comes to getting ahead in life and work, the old adage is still true: it can be all about who you know.

So how can you avoid small talk and actually have meaningful and interesting conversations with people you meet, even if you’re really nervous?

Whether you’re the confident outgoing type, or are a little more reserved or find social situations nerve-wracking, we’ve got you covered, and its pretty simple.

It comes down to these four things

1) Knowing how to ask engaging questions

2) Maintaining the conversation without feeling like you’re trying too hard

3) Knowing how and when to end the conversation

4) Following up in the right way given the situation

Let’s dive a little deeper into each of the four steps…

Step one: knowing how to ask engaging questions

Small talk is awkward because of the types of questions you ask – you’re generally asking about the weather, how their journey was or questions that elicit a yes or no response. These types of questions don’t tell you much about a person or give you any new information about them. They also don’t help the conversation flow.

Instead, ask open-ended questions that your new contact can’t possibly answer with a simple yes or no. Open ended questions usually begin with who, what, where, why and how.

Here’s some question openers to get you started:

  • What’s been the most interesting thing that’s happened in your [career / business / studies] so far?
  • Who make great [customers / contacts] for you?
  • What’s your favourite part of working in ________________?
  • What’s the one thing you’re most excited about in ______________ this year?
  • What else are you interested in outside of ______________?
  • How did you get into _______________?
  • What are you working on right now?
  • How does _________________ work? (if you don’t understand what they do)
  • How do you know ______________? (insert name of mutual contact)
  • What are your thoughts on ____________? (insert topical subject)

As you’ll see, all you need to do is fill in the blanks to tailor some of the questions – and of course putting them into your own words so they feel and sound natural to ask.

By asking open ended questions you’ll be able to avoid small talk when networking and meeting new people altogether and actually build meaningful relationships with the people you meet.

Step two: maintaining the conversation without feeling like you’re trying too hard

One of the worst things about networking, whether formally at a meeting or conference or socially, is keeping the conversation flowing without feeling like you’re trying too hard or following some sort of conversation script.

You now have the engaging questions to get you going but there’s a few other things that are worth knowing.

Firstly, people generally love to talk about themselves. Studies have shown that people who talk about themselves more during a conversation think more highly of the person they were talking to, than those who spoke less about themselves. Keep your new friend talking about themselves and it’ll build rapport, as well as put the spotlight on them and not you (a great tactic if you’re nervous).

Secondly, be fully engaged with the person! Listen carefully and show interest in what they’re saying. This will give you clues of what else you could ask them to dig a little deeper and maintain the conversation.

It’s also really important to let your body language show that you’re interested. If your body is turned away from them and it looks like you’re waiting for an opportunity to move on to talking to someone else, they’ll pick up on those signals. Try facing them full and lean in slightly whilst they’re talking. Maintain good eye contact with plenty of nods and acknowledge that you’re listening with non word sounds like “mmm” and “ahh”.

Step three: knowing how and when to end the conversation

Ending a conversation can be even more tricky than starting one. You may get clues from the other person that they want to move on, such as looking at the time or over your shoulder for an opportunity to move on. Or, you might be itching to get away yourself.

If so, watch out for an opportunity when the conversation takes a natural break and you’ve come to some closure around whatever you’ve been talking about. At this point you can start to signal the end by shifting your own body language away from them slightly and opening out to the rest of the room.

And the best way to end a conversation? Simply say with a big smile:

“It has been so nice chatting to you [NAME]”

You don’t need to say anything else if you don’t intend to follow up (see step four) but if you do, you could also let them know how you’ll follow up. 

Step four: following up in the right way given the situation

If it’s a professional networking situation, you might ask for the other person’s business card and arrange a time to call or meet for coffee to carry on the conversation. In a more informal or social situation, if you want to stay in touch you might ask to connect online or take their contact details.

Either way, it’s a good idea to let them know when they can expect to hear from you and how. E.g. – “Thanks so much, I’ll give you a call on Monday and we can put that coffee in the diary.”

If they’ve offered any information or connections or visa versa you may wish to confirm that with them. E.g – “I’ll connect you with [NAME] when I’m back in the office and introduce you”

Even if you don’t have an immediate reason to follow up, it’s worth swapping details and at least connecting in some way online so in the future you can pick up the conversation or help one another.

Networking can happen at any time in any situation and can be a fantastic way to open doors up whether you’re just starting your career, building it, thinking of a change or are trying to win new business.

Hopefully with the steps we’ve shared today you’ll feel more confident avoiding the dreaded small talk that comes with networking and really get to know the people you meet so you create long lasting relationships that can help you in the future.

If you’ve any tips you’d like to add, please leave a comment and share them with us.

Jen Smith coaches entrepreneurs in social media.

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