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The Art of Small Talk

Those of you who have known me personally for a while probably know that when you are attending a cocktail reception where I am present, you're likely to find me somewhere in the vicinity of the bar. There’s a good reason for that and it's not the one you think!

Sooner or later most everyone at the event will show up at the bar, so it's a great location to talk with the maximum number of people in the short time available. Being able to schmooze with others through friendly small talk has always been one of my most enjoyable and relaxing networking activities.

Like every business skill that we acquire, making small talk is an art unto itself and requires a certain amount of practice before it becomes a natural thing to do. Let me take a moment to share with you some of the ideas I’ve discovered over the years that have helped me in my small talk endeavors.

1. As you prepare for a function or event, think about a few things to talk about as well as four generic questions that will get others talking. If you've met and spoken with a person previously, try to recall some things about them, such as a passion they may have for a sport (golf) or a positive business development.

2. Be the first to say "Hello." If you're not sure if the other person will remember you, offer your name to ease the pressure. For example, “James Smith? Tom Hamilton -- good to see you again." Smile first and always shake hands when you meet someone.

3. Take your time during introductions. Make an extra effort to remember names and use them frequently. Please don’t just take the business card and put it in your pocket. Take a moment to look at it and make a note of the person’s title and other important information. You will find there will be some nugget on the business card that can be a springboard for conversation.

4. Get the other person talking by leading with a general statement and then ask a related open-ended question. For example, "Attendance looks higher than last year, how long have you been coming to these events?" You can also ask them about their trip in or how their business is going.

5. Stay focused by actively listening and giving feedback. Maintain eye contact and don’t glance around the room while they are talking to you.

6. Listen more than you talk.

7. Have something interesting to contribute. Keeping abreast of current events and culture will provide you with great conversation builders but at the same time, stay away from controversial topics. Refrain from long-winded stories or giving a lot of detail in a casual conversation unless it naturally goes that way where the two of you are swapping experiences.

8. If there are people you especially want to meet, one of the best ways to approach them is to be introduced by someone they know. Ask a mutual friend to do the honors.

9. Watch your body language. People who look ill at ease make others uncomfortable. Act confident and relaxed.

10. Before entering into a conversation that's already in progress, observe, listen, and wait for an appropriate opportunity to chime in.

11. Have a few exit lines ready so that you can both gracefully move on. For example, "Great talking with you and we'll catch up more later — I need to ..."

For me, the primary goal in meeting with new people and old friends, even for just a short time, is to have a pleasant experience. This by itself will leave a positive impression which will be another stepping stone in nurturing a new or existing relationship along.

Thomas W. Hamilton more


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