The word “networking” puts a lot of people off, but it’s just a dry term for something humans have been doing since the dawn of time: making connections with each other. However, relationship building in the 21st century is a bit more complicated than it was for our ancestors. With so many gadgets and competing priorities to distract us, it’s hard to set everything aside to give a stranger our whole attention. In particular, it seems that the art of making small talk has become a thing of the past.
That’s too bad, writes entrepreneur Peter Gasca at Inc, because “small talk with strangers … often provides a pleasant and unique opportunity to meet someone new and, perhaps, create a long-term, prosperous relationship.”
Many valuable business connections and personal friendships start out with shooting the breeze. But to take your small talk game to the next level, you need to start the right way.
Here’s the secret:
Focus on the other person.
That’s it. If you do this, you’ll avoid many of the conversational pitfalls that turn people off to networking, including:
- Bothering people who’d honestly rather be checking work email (or their Instagram feed).
- Hijacking the conversation and making everything about you.
- Turning the exchange into a singleminded quest to achieve your professional goals, whether it’s a sale or a job or another connection.
- Getting so nervous you forget how to form sentences and possibly spill your drink on someone’s carefully chosen cocktail attire.
“Believe it or not, the most effective small talk involves a great deal of silence–on your part,” Gasca says. “The easiest way to strike up a conversation is to get others to talk about themselves. Ask a sincere and probing starter question–then listen.”
Sample Starter Questions/Ice Breakers
- Where are you from? (Gasca’s pick.)
- What’s the best part of your job?
- What are you reading right now?
- What’s your story?
- I read your book/listened to your podcast/heard you speak.
- If you could meet anyone in the world, who would you meet?
- Can you give me some advice on X?
- Do you know so-and-so?
- Do you like that phone/tablet/laptop? I’m thinking of getting one.
Whichever one you go with, the most important thing is to be sincere. Don’t pretend to root for their hometown sports team if you support their rival or claim to be interested in their phone when you’re not a gadget person. Authenticity goes a long way.
As Austin Kleon says, “If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.”
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