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Small Talk September 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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5 comments

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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