How to Make Small Talk in Business Networking Situations

Introverts–of which I am one–usually dread small talk.* In general, “small talk” is simply idle chatter that is designed to interact superficially without asking deep or personal questions about the other person.

Large social gatherings, such as business networking events (or office parties where you don’t know a lot of people) are often a situation where small talk is not only appropriate but sometimes necessary. If you’re an introvert, this post is for you. If you’re an extrovert, you probably enjoy most social gatherings and this post’s attitude will be bewildering to you. You won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t read it, though it would be interesting to read an extrovert’s take on social chitchat.

(* This is not because we hate people, we just like them in smaller quantities.)

What DO people talk about, anyway?

Small talk in the U.S. means discussing innocuous things like sports, television programs, or the weather before you jump right into wowing them with your latest bright sale-making idea.

You might not care about any of the things most people talk about. While I can usually talk about the NFL, (some) college football, or the Chicago Cubs, I am at a loss about all other sports. Occasionally I watch the Winter Olympics because it’s a bunch of stuff I would never do, making me the ideal armchair commentator. But ask me about another sport–say, soccer (football for the rest of the world)–and I go blank. With television it’s even worse because I stopped watching first runs of new TV shows around the time Star Trek: Voyager went off the air. As for the weather, everyone talks about it, but nobody ever does anything about it (I did get a strange look from someone who complained about the rain and I responded, “I’m sorry, our weather satellite is broken”).

Mind you, you might not care or remember what people at an event actually talked about. Little hint: if you’re in a roomful of strangers, you  don’t always need to, just nod occasionally and ask appropriate follow-up questions: “What did that mean to you?” “How did you feel about that?”

Another thing to do would be to casually walk about with food/beverage in hand and listen to what other people are discussing to see if there’s a conversation you might consider joining. Your level of energy will go up if you feel you have something interesting to contribute.

I’ve said this before, but small talk usually means avoiding larger discussions such as politics, sex, or religion. You might get more animated or interesting discussions talking about hot-button topics like those, but this can be a social risk, depending on the crowd and the occasion. Do you want to start an argument at someone’s wedding or the company picnic? Your call.

How to prep for small talk

One thing that can help the socially uncomfortable is to go in with a plan…or with a set of things you can talk about that meet the usual sports/TV/weather level of chitchat. I for one am much better at “business networking” activities than purely social events because at a business event, I’m free to talk about my work, which is a lot of what interests or animates me. Purely social occasions mean I have to talk about myself and my life when I’m not at work, and that’s a) not terribly interesting to a lot of people or b) nobody’s darned business in my mind.

There are a couple ways you can go in “armed for battle.”

  • Read up on what’s going on in the world of sports (who’s winning, who’s losing), maybe specialize in the activities of one particular team or sports figure.
  • Find out what’s popular on TV and at least get a general idea of what’s happening on the show and who the main characters are. Again, you might not care about most of what’s on TV, but you can fake it until you make it.
  • You might have a hobby (mine is reading) about which you’re passionately interested. Talk about that instead.
  • Come in prepped with open-ended questions so that you get other people to talk more than you. Open-ended means something that requires more than a yes-or-no answer. These might include:
    • What do you do in your free time?
    • What’s your favorite sport/team? How are they doing?
    • What are you watching on TV? (And here’s a more interesting question for introverts to ask:) What is it about the show that interests you?
    • What do you do when you’re not watching (Team A/TV Show B)? That way you’re not diving right into the “What do you do?” habit that most Americans have, myself included.
  • Set a goal for meeting or speaking with a minimum or maximum number of people.
  • Come in with an interesting, short, funny story about something that happened to you–again avoiding stories related to sex, religion, politics, etc.–just something brief and amusing to set other people at ease. Odds are, you’re not the only uncomfortable person in the room.
  • If you’re attending a business-related function, have business cards handy. Talking business can put you in a work frame of mind, which  can be very different from a simply social mindset. I learned the hard way that this is a little awkward at purely social occasions.

 

Calling it a night

There are things you can do to avoid making a social gathering endless hours of agony. You can set yourself a time limit for your attendance. My social energy threshold is about two hours, after which I run out of extrovert juice and need to retire. This is not a bad amount of time, as it usually gives you an opportunity to interact with many people and it has a cutoff time.

If you’re going with someone else–a friend, preferably–it’s good to set that expectation up front. I will say ghosting is definitely easier if you’re traveling single, but when it’s time to go, you can depart quietly or let the host(ess) know that you had a great time and that it’s just time to go.

Bottom line: social functions are often unavoidable, as is the idle chitchat that comes with them–and attempts to avoid them can cause you other problems–so it’s best to put in the effort so that you’re not always the wall flower by the punch bowl. You might not learn to like it, but you can learn to at least get better at it.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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