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Small Talk September 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
Tags: , , ,

I love “small world” stories.  I love wandering into an event and discovering that someone in the room went to my elementary school, or likes the same movies, or knows someone I know.  I like that “who’d have thought?” moment when two people make a connection that they would have never thought possible just moments before.

Much is made these days of networking and how to use it to our advantage in our personal and professional lives.  While a lot of focus is on the social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, there is still a lot of value in face-to-face networking.  It’s just that people seem to avoid it, and that lots of people seem to be bad at it. I think that’s a shame.  With a little practice, everyone can get better at real networking.

The key is to master the art of small talk.  Small talk, far from being as diminutive as its name suggests, is the real grease that makes networking flow.  Through small talk, you can discover the serendipitous connections that will open the door to better, deeper network connections.

Good small talk is easy.  A simple rule for starting a good “small” conversation is to avoid talking about the actual topic that has brought you together with other people.  For example, if you are at an event addressing server virtualization, do not talk about any aspect of servers, virtualization, data centers, or even computing.  This stuff is deadly dull even when you want to talk about it; the idea that you’re going to create a warm connection with someone over a meaningful conversation about virtual memory is ludicrous.

Instead, bring up topics that are likely to generate a connection with someone.  Where do they live? Where are they from? Where did they go to school?  Do they have kids? Hobbies? Seen any good movies? Back from vacation? Doing something interesting this weekend? Play golf? Like to run? There are dozens of simple questions that will get people talking about something that interests them.  The idea is to learn about the other person, find some connections between you and them, and let those connections strengthen your shared knowledge and resulting relationship.

I’m often puzzled why people struggle with this kind of networking.  I’ve seen so many people standing in awkward, uncomfortable silence at networking events, staring at their drinks and stuck for conversation.  That’s foreign to me; anyone who knows me will tell you that I am never stuck for something to say.

Many people in IT are introverts (that’s what the “I” stands for) and have a hard time starting these kinds of conversations. They gravitate back to the safety of technology, which makes it hard to meet non-technical people.  If you are one of these people, you may need to consciously focus on being better at this kind of engagement with people.  That’s OK.

I once worked for someone who knew they were bad at this stuff and had to consciously prepare for events.  When the event was over, they were exhausted by the effort. But they recognized the value of small talk and making connections, so they made the effort, improving over time.

Are you using small talk to build and enrich your network?  Does it come easy, or do you have to work at it?  Either way, small talk paves the way to big rewards in your network. So, seen any good movies lately?

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1. Sid Prince - September 18, 2009

Great topic Chuck.

I have a blog post in development that covers the top 5 tenants of Real Networking. I didn’t include small talk explicitly, but it is implied I think. If not, it may become 6 tenants of Real Networking.

Here are my 5 rules:

1) Never ask for the sale when you first meet someone new
2) Always look for ways to help your new friend
3) Maintain eye contact as much as possible
4) Be funny
5) Don’t be negative, regardless of the topic of discussion

I’ll flesh these out in my post and will include real life stories of where I went wrong with them (they were all learned the hard way). I’ll also include some “expert” commentary from highly effective networkers I know.

Sorry for the pitch here. The topic just fit so well with yours I had to mention it. I’m a new reader and will be following your blog from now on.

Right, enough with the small talk!



2. Heather Hollick - September 18, 2009

I once discovered a metaphor that makes those first awkward minutes of small talk not only bearable, but interesting and productive. It is a metaphor that only a tech nerd can love.

Remember the days of dial-up modems and fax machines? Remember the strange, guttural exchange of sounds as the two electronic devices were connecting? What was happening? The two devices were negotiating connection speed and communication protocols. Once device would send out a few tones and wait to see if the other side agreed? In response, the other side would agree or counter-offer with a different speed until they both agreed that they could communicate.

This is how small talk in person-to-person conversations work. Everyone has different background, interests, conversational styles, social skills and present mood. Small talk is merely that opening volley of negotiating how this conversation will take place. Start with something small and simple (the weather, The Bears!) and see how it lands. Navigate and negotiate conversational styles until you (subconsciously) agree on a protocol. Most times, you will be able to delve into something more meaningful rather quickly. Sometimes, the communication devices just don’t connect. No worries, just move on.

Like most good introverts, I used to despise small talk. Now I see it for what it is: the negotiation of a conversational style that will enable us to have a more meaningful conversation. Simple, but it works.

3. Mike Blood - September 18, 2009

Terrific invitation to recall the value of small talk in professional networking and even personal situations. Being an IT services guy my entire career, I can relate to the “I” = Introvert in IT. I recall limiting conversations to tech-talk during my early career days as a Software Engineer. In retrospect… Boring! Being in the Staff Acquisition industry for several years now, I have found helping people that need some help being more comfortable in conversing outside the comfort zone is a nescessary part of the process in helping them with getting their next career opportunity. Too often, the small talk ability is often overlooked and undervalued by some recruiters. I am glad to see forums including the Effective CIO help with awareness and coaching process. Thanks. Oh! By the way, good movies?… A classic fun movie for kids and those grown up kids too… The Goonies. Life’s an adventure! Make sure you have some Chocolate on hand and keep the small-talk to a minimum… this time.

4. Beverly Brown - September 18, 2009

As an introverted public relations professional, I appreciate this post on a couple of levels!

I’m like Chuck’s former boss, who had to consciously prepare for events, but recognized the value. They payoff is worth every ounce of invested effort. And it really is an investment.

5. thedevoted - November 27, 2009

I have complained in the past about how much I detest small talk, but the ‘art’ of it in situations where you are there to accomplish a specific goal is something I have learned over the years in my professional life. I always walk into a situation with 5 questions under my belt. I rotate those questions throughout the night and find that I usually only have to use 2 on one single person before a real conversation ensues. Some of my favorites:

What brought you here tonight?

I hit some crazy traffic coming in. Where did you commute from?

Can you believe this weather? (Whatever their response, go with the flow. I’d only bring up weather, though, if you’re an amateur weather watcher like myself…I have some good comebacks with radar readings, etc.)

I think McDonalds makes better appetizers. Have you been to one of these shindigs before?

Love the suit – where’d you get that?

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