Standing in a room full of professionals trying to network with one another can feel a whole lot like freshman orientation in college: People look like they’re trying too hard, and you get asked the same three questions over and over again (“Where are you from? What do you do? What are you doing here?”).
So obviously, in a world filled with nifty devices and instant messaging services galore, the desire to forgo all awkward in-person communication makes sense. You can just network in 140 characters or less from now on, right?
But before you swear off networking and talking to strangers at professional events altogether, here’s some food for thought: A study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that likeability is a key factor in getting hired or advancing at your current job. And what determines a large portion of your likeability?
You guessed it: your ability to small talk.
Before you start groaning, you should know that there are a couple of pain-free ways to up your small talking game. At your next networking or work event, give them a try.
1. Be Original
Ask more unconventional questions. In a recent experiment of sorts, small talk experts Rob Baedeker and Chris Colin handed networkers cue cards that said things like, “How does a microwave work? If you don’t know, pretend you are an expert and fabricate with conviction.”
The result? The conversation got very interesting in a hurry.
While you don’t necessarily have to start making up false information, there’s something to learn from this: Breaking out of the mold of typical questions gets results. Start a document of good conversation starters you hear, and before your next event, pick a few to have at the front of your mind to pull out.
2. Make the Follow-Up About the Other Person
We all know that people want to talk about themselves and make themselves shine, so let them. But obviously, it’s way easier said than done to go up to strangers and seem really interested in their lives without sounding creepy.
One tip I’ve found useful: Spend as much time thinking about your follow-up questions as you do your conversation starter. It’s easy to ask that first question (“So, what do you do?”), but the follow-up is where it’s tricky to sound authentic and not like you’re going through the motions. For example, if I ask someone what she does, I may then ask how she got into that particular field, or what her experience has been like. Since I’ve been asking these questions for a while, I’ve committed then to memory, and now the conversations flow much more easily.
Additionally, these questions make me seem interested in the other person and help us to find other common interests without it feeling like a rapid fire interview session.
3. Leave the Tech in Your Pocket
Refuse to pull out your iPhone and start tweeting all your friends to look busy. In fact, put it away and keep it there, and instead push yourself to try to keep a lively conversation going as long as possible.
I know, all of the phone addicts reading this may be saying, “There’s no way I can just not look at my phone!” My advice? Just turn it off—seriously. Turning on and off an iPhone or Android device takes a lot of time and energy, so leaving it off for the entirety of an event is an easy way to keep you focused on what’s happening.
The old adage says that networking is a muscle, but keep in mind that small talk is a muscle, too. The more you do it, the easier it becomes and the longer you’ll be able to sustain an interesting and engaging conversation.
So, who’s down to stop having conversations like a college freshman? I sure am.