At a networking session for your industry, you’re tongue tied about familiar topics.
You’ve joined a club to make new friends, but no members are approaching you at meetings.
Eighty per cent of all hires are secured through networking, through people knowing other people. So, it’s no wonder that career coaches and successful businesspeople preach the value of networking, mingling, making connections, and building relationships. But how?
The answer, surprisingly, is small talk.
Small talk is the linchpin of every relationship, whether it’s a professional one, or a parental, romantic, or bestie one.
Small talk smoothes the way for serious conversation. It offers a graceful way for people to assess each other. It passes important facts back and forth. It builds trust.
So you can understand why it’s a skill every serious jobseeker needs to have.
Once you learn a few simple techniques for successful small talk, you can enjoy and benefit from any conversation.
1. Be proactive.
Don’t wait for others to initiate a conversation. Most people are not naturally outgoing. You’ll never know what opportunities you might bypass when you avoid connecting with someone new via casual conversation.
And being the initiator earns you cred. You come across as confident, interesting, and – most importantly – interested in the other person. You’ll also be putting the person at ease by taking the lead, so chatting will be easier.
2. Make eye contact and smile.
It sounds elementary, but not everyone has the habit of looking directly at a conversational partner and smiling.
Eye contact tells a person you are interested in him, and a smile tells him you are approaching as a friend. Women do this more instinctively than men, as part of their innate hardwiring, but that doesn’t mean men look girly by smiling and making eye contact!
3. Practice when you have nothing to lose.
Don’t expect to show up at the next job fair, lock eyes, smile and start a clever banter with the hiring manager for the company you’d love to work for.
Hone your new skills with the stranger waiting for the bus with you, the young person sitting next to you on a flight, or the woman ahead of you in the supermarket checkout line. Knowing that you’ll probably never see these people again should relax you and let you practice your new skills.
Side Note: you never know when a casual conversation with a stranger will lead to a source for your next job.
4. Learn some opening lines.
It’s less threatening to the other person when you begin a conversation with a statement rather than a question. Some examples:
I’m learning quite a bit at today’s conference. How about you?
I read that your company plans to expand into the Southwest. Have they been planning this for some time and what does the time frame look like?
You always look so put together. I know you’re a busy mom. What’s your secret?
I wanted to introduce myself and say thanks because I always enjoy what you blog about. Where do you get all your ideas?
Sam told me that you visited Japan last month. What was that like?
Your department really excelled at the presentation today. How did you manage to put it together on such short notice?
5. Ask open ended questions.
Asking questions that can be answered with a yes or no, or a single phrase, will get you nowhere. It merely puts the ball back in your court.
So, always ask questions that allow the speaker to elaborate. It will give you the material you need to shape your (oh-so-clever) response.
Instead of “What do you do for a living?” ask, “Is the job you have now what you dreamed of becoming when you were young?” This is a great question. It always opens the door to a fun exchange of anecdotes.
Instead of “Did you enjoy the movie (or book)?” ask “Tell me a little about the movie.” Here you run the risk of getting too much information, but it will give you practice in steering the conversation onto a more interesting tangent.
Instead of “How long have you lived here?” Ask “What made you decide to move here and how do you like it?” I’ve always had good success with this topic. Almost everyone has a story about why they live where they live. And you don’t even have to know someone well to ask it.
6. Learn how to listen.
Act interested. An active listener establishes instant chemistry.
An active listener lets the talker know you’ve heard him and understand him. Be an active listener by repeating or paraphrasing what the other person just said. Like this –
Interviewer: We’re having a difficult time finding qualified applicants.
You: I guess it’s not easy when the position calls for certain qualifications.
Or this –
New acquaintance: I wish we’d get a change in the weather.
You: Sounds like you’re not a fan of snow.
This reflective listening has the additional advantage of giving the other person the chance to correct you if you misunderstood him. And there you go, off on a conversation!
7. Keep it upbeat.
Avoid negativity. This tip is especially important for job seekers. No one wants to chat with a curmudgeon, let alone work with one.
Also avoid controversy, especially when getting to know someone you hope to have an ongoing relationship with, or someone you need to impress. Hot button topics are the usual suspects: politics, the economy, religion, race and ethnicity, and the environment. When people raise these topics, I suggest you form a stock reply such as, “Well, that’s a matter for another discussion.” If that doesn’t work, just gracefully let the person give his opinions.
Because most job interviews – as well as new friendships – begin with some small talk, it’s a necessary social skill and an important job-hunting skill. If you aren’t capable of a casual chat or if you consider small talk small potatoes, not worth your bother, then no one will bother with you.
What you talk about is secondary. It’s the connection you make that matters.