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. 
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