Hate Small Talk? These 5 Questions Will Help You Work Any Room

Do you love going to events, but find yourself stranded during happy hour, tongue-tied and tucked in a corner? Initiating and maintaining conversations while networking is a necessary skill, and one you can easily improve with these simple tips.

Mastering small talk will help you find common ground to create a mini-bond with new contacts. Small talk may feel trite and unimportant, but it's the small talk that leads to the big talk.

Ideally small talk will uncover common interests, business alignments, the six degrees that separate you, potential need for your product or service, and basically whether or not you enjoy each other's company. The goal is not to become best friends or a new client on the spot. Although it's nice when those instant connections happen, usually that's not the case.

The goal of conversation at functions is to establish enough common ground to determine a reason to connect again.

Keeping a conversation rolling is simple when you learn to listen and ask appropriate probing questions that naturally grow from the dialogue. You only need to prepare a couple of questions in advance. If there is a genuine connection then you can proactively engage in conversation.

When a person doesn't participate actively in a conversation with you, that's a red flag to say to yourself, "Okay, this is not one of my quality contacts, it's time to move on and meet someone else."

Ultimately, the decision each person has to make during this initial contact is whether or not there is enough connection to warrant future interaction. It's during these small conversations that people form their opinions about whether they like you, trust you, and believe you're competent.

Actual business talk is quite limited at functions. Learning what people do and perhaps about some of their big developments or projects is about the extent of the business talk expected. Deeper connections are formed through finding common ground that is not work related.

There is a balance between too much and too little business talk. If you don't talk business at all you may miss an opportunity to communicate who you are, what you do, and what you have to offer and that you are competent in your field. There are some people who you can know for years and never hear them talk about work. You just assume they are retired or not interested in more clients.

However, if you talk about your work too much you run the risk of boring others. Too much "shoptalk" can easily put a damper on an evening. Watch for cues from your conversation partners. How are they responding to the conversation with you? Are they engaged? Are they obviously looking for a new conversation partner? Are they listening to and understanding what you are saying? Are you giving them more information than they expect, want, or need? Are you monopolizing the conversation and not giving others a chance to share ideas or ask questions?

Match the depth of dialogue to the environment.

You don't want to let people overhear confidential or inappropriate information. Plus, talk that is too deep at business functions can lead to heated conversations. New contacts could be put on edge. Over-heated conversations can quickly be subdued by simply making a closing agreeable statement that offers little room for a rhetorical comment. This tactic will diffuse the situation quickly and without incident.

For example, say with a smile, "Well, that's one issue we're not going to solve tonight," or simply close the conversation with "I certainly understand your perspective," minus the "but" that is sitting on the tip of your tongue.

You won't win points for always having to be right. You may win the debate while making someone else look bad, but in the end, you'll make yourself look worse. You will, however, win points for having social graces if you are the bigger person and cool potentially fiery situations.

You have to know when to let go and kill the discussion even if you believe you are correct on the issue. In the grand scheme of things, we must value the opinions of others and accept that it is not important to win every debate. The last thing you want to do is to appear as the know-it-all who must end conversations as the perceived winner.

Your words may be forgotten, but how you make people feel will be remembered.

When it comes to small talk, don't think you must say something strikingly intelligent each time you speak. Your words may be forgotten, but how you make people feel will be remembered.

No doubt small talk can get a little dull after a while. So, take it upon yourself to make it interesting. To prepare for conversations, choose your five favorite safe topics. These will make it easy for you to swing an otherwise stale conversation into one that makes you a genuinely enthusiastic conversationalist.

Have you ever been in a conversation that just wasn't clicking, then suddenly the mood changes and you both have a smile on your face as the conversation starts firing on all cylinders? That's because you found common ground. It occurs when two people have an interest in the same topic.

By determining in advance what interests you, half of the equation for stimulating conversation is complete. Now your job is to guide the conversation from topic to topic until you solve the other important half of the equation: What's of interest to your new contact?

Finally, it's about your attitude.

I must admit, after attending hundreds of events and interacting with thousands of people, there are times when I feel small talk is simply a dreaded requirement. I'm writing this so you know that I completely understand if you're reading this and thinking, "I don't care about all this superficial conversation."

When I get in those moods, I remind myself that the person I'm meeting has the potential to be my next big client or a newfound friend. If those thoughts don't shift my attitude, I'll set a personal challenge to create a super-duper fantastic conversation with a new contact. For some reason, this additional challenge seems to inspire me to get enthusiasm back into the small talk. If that doesn't work, I just remind myself that the person I'm talking with deserves my respect.

The real key to great conversations is to relax. Let the conversation flow naturally. That's easiest to do when you're fully engaged and genuinely interested in the conversation topic and the person with whom you are talking.

Do you have questions you typically use to break the ice and form lasting connections? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd., from From Business Cards to Business Relationships: Personal Branding and Profitable Networking Made Easy, 2nd Edition, by Allison Graham. Copyright © 2012 by Allison Graham.

Allison Graham is a corporate trainer and keynote speaker specializing in effective networking and business development strategies for professional service providers and small business entrepreneurs. Visit her at Elevate Seminars + Strategic Development, Inc.

[Image: Flickr user Aquila]

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  • Adams

    Mastering small talk will help you find common ground to create a mini-bond with new contacts. Small talk may feel trite and unimportant, but it's the small talk that leads to the big talk.

  • Ed Eaton

    At a business event, my go-to question is "what industry are you in?" I work in product design, so there are all sorts of answers from medical to consumer products to roller coasters to machines that process shrimp, so the answer is always going to be fascinating. Then, from there, I can geek out and ask about the challenges that they come across (so you do flat bed trains? I never knew that the flat bed wasn't flat - it has a 1KM positive arc to it so when loaded it becomes flat. How on earth do you fabricate that? Trigger the learning.
    Same with folks doing oil pumps - I never thought for a second that oil is filled with grit, but it is coming from the ground so of course it does! How do your pumps deal with that?)
    Never, ever, ever ask a question with a possible yes or no answer. Conversation death.
    I love to ask "how did you get into that field?" At some point there is going to be a commonality. Or at least an appreciation of their decision.
    When it is random people at a bar or a high school reunion, I ask them about "around where" they live.... and then how did they ended up/arrived there (this opens up the life story... family, spouses, kids, what regions of the country they like... a treasure trove of data to spark more conversation)
    The home run question when you have a bond is "what is the most fun thing you did last year?" Now I've open up the conversation to hobbies, preferences, personal relationships, and who knows what else! It is hard to ask this upfront, but once a relationship has started this question is fantastic - and the best part is you are now becoming friends. Who really wants to talk about work all night?


  • Gail Monique Mallo

    Hah! I love this! People tell me that I am good at small talks with new people but sometimes when I'm not in the mood I struggle. Definitely sharing this. 

  • Patti Pokorchak

    Be curious, forget your own self-consciousness and concentrate on the other person and uncovering their 'secret' - it can be their kids, their career, their golf game or cottage - find out what makes them tick and light up.

  • Kristina Bonitz

    All very good recommendations and helpful insights! but in my opinion the article doesn't really address the hardest part: getting the conversation started. as soon as you're actually talking with somebody, it's not that hard to keep it flowing but making the start can be frightening and awkward. Recommendations?

  • Robert Schepens

    "What do you do when you are not working?". "What are you looking forward to this year (month, day, event) ?" Those type of questions are not only not expected, but cause someone to actually think beyond the typical "what do you do?" nonsense. In many instances, you will find what people are passionate about, and the resulting conversations can be Remarkable.

  • Kristy Smith

    Learning to listen has been a common theme of the articles that are popping up in my networks this week! Good stuff!

  • Denniwen_82

    I have a crazy idea. How about just being yourself? And just being honest. Instead of trying to strategize the next fool-proof way to fill your contact list in two hours flat!!! People are not 'tasks'. And people know when they are just an input in your network- making factory.

    Like, admit to strangers that networking can be tough? How many friends would you make with that one, honest statement alone?
    Actually, probably none as most of the tragic, corporate drones that attend these things would identify it as a 'weakness' or a 'dumb move' and write you off immediately.

  • Perfick

    I agree with you Denniwen. Since most people at these functions are in robotic mode, it is best to just be yourself, roll with the flow, and get out as quickly as you can.

  • DeeDee

    I work for an art center which is solely dependent on donations from investors. Not being an extrovert, I rely on honesty. "Hi, my name is .... I am as unskilled as you can get at small talk. However, I am an extraordinarily talented painter and teacher. I would love for you to come and see me in action. As for this moment, I'm begging for money." 

  • Ed Drozda

    Allison, I really appreciate your article and it resonates
    whole-heartedly with me. There is no one-size fits all when it comes to
    networking but you sure have covered the bases. After looking at the variety of
    comments it seems that many folks are intimidated by this process. It helps to
    start with a defined intent- what is my purpose for attending this event? Once
    that is known, you have provided a vivid plate of options to choose from that
    will not only make the process easier, but far more effective. Thanks.

  • pamelahawley

    Dear Allison,

    What wonderful ideas!  One way I look at it is to take a European View: Instead of talking about work, ask about what people are interested in.  Often work for people is simply a job.   

    In America, we often use work as a "go-to" in our conversations.  That's not bad, as many of us are passionate about our work, or have been fortunate to find a calling.  

    Yet Europeans take a different view.  They often enjoy life through a broader perspective: art, food, intellect, spending time together.   Work is one component of life.  

    So instead I ask what people are interested in, what they love to do.  People love to talk about this, and it may or may not involve work. They also appreciate being asked about themselves holistically as people.

    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO


    Living and Giving blog

  • Destin from Dc Moving Company

    Of course it is true; a small talk can make a big talk between two or more people. I appreciate your ideas and people can enhance their personality through this too.

  • Lori Freemire

    For professional events, I always wear my company-logo'd shirt or a lapel pin.  I always get questions about the company, which is Australian, and what we do. When attending non-profit or community events, I get the conversation going with, "What's your interest or connection to this organization?"  I've been in my current location for a year and am an introvert, so I make every effort to make sure I know as much as possible about the event/organizer/ speaker/issues/audience so I can come armed with relevant conversation-starters.

  • Kevin Herbert

    I like to ask what expectations the person had of the meeting today and who the most interesting people they met were. Also, what inspires or motivates you?

  • Kathryn M Young

    I often find it difficult to begin small talk...however my go to is how much I enjoy the group or organization throwing the event and how they have partnered with my company/organization. This small opening allows me to find out more about their connection and industry. 

  • Jillea

    I like to talk about the event or the reason for the event or maybe the speaker. 
    Did you catch the keynote speaker this morning? I felt like he was talking directly to me when he said...Isn't it wonderful the way this group supports XYZ Foundation? It makes giving a little more a little easier for me.I almost didn't come tonight but I'm glad I did because I enjoyed that skit. Do you know who played the Big Bad Wolf in it?Just keep it positive.

  • LauraJean

    You may want to consider asking them something like "What is it about your business / product / service that I should know in order to send / recommend prospective customers / clients to you?"

  • Christy Smallwood

    I enjoy finding out people's "WHY."  Why they do the thing they do.  What's their passion?  What light's them up?  If the person across from me feels like I am fully engaged in their excitement, I will be remembered.  The key to that - be genuinely engaged.  Actively listen, ask open-ended questions that get people talking more about themselves.  I find that people remember me for being caring, welcoming, and someone they want to continue relationship with.