A Simple Tip for Surviving Networking Events

The perils of small talk
Photo via Marvin Harrell

Chit-chat, jibber-jabber, blah-blah-blah.

Many of us feel awkward making so-called “small talk.” I know I do. Mitt Romney clearly does. It seems like an inescapable part of getting along in life, in the workplace, and at networking events.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the best lessons I’ve learned on networking came from a CEO I worked with years ago. We were pushing him to get out “among the people,” raise his visibility, engage with employees, etc.

He said he wasn’t comfortable with the typical “grip and grin” session, where a leader walks around, shakes hands, claps backs and administers heavy doses of “How ya doing?” and “Keep up the good work!”

So he came up on his own with a very simple, very smart formula. He would ask them two questions:

  1. What’s one thing we’re doing well?
  2. What’s one thing we can do better?

Here’s what’s ingenius about this method:

  • It sets up an actual substantive conversation, as opposed to mindless chit-chat.
  • By asking questions, it signals that you value the other person’s opinion.
  • It also puts you in listening (as opposed to lecturing) mode.
  • A little structure gives introverts and the awkwardly inclined a simple menu to follow.

(There were also some important organizational benefits to this method. Starting with a positive question put people in a constructive mindset. Limiting the questions to “one thing” forces people to prioritize the truly important issues over the merely annoying. And it helps uncover problems that need addressing.)

So if you find yourself at a networking event, company party or other gathering, come up with your own questions. “What do you do?” is an obvious one. A business colleague swears by “What’s the last movie you saw?” (And it does always seem to generate conversation.) Or “What did you think of the [speech/announcement/hors d’oeuvres?”]

With a little prompting, most people are happy to talk about themselves or share their opinions. So take the burden off yourself, and ask a few questions. (And be sure to listen, of course.)

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