I don’t know about you, but I’m just terrible at small talk. I am not good at making it and don’t really understand the point – it seems so forced and shallow. However, it can be a useful thing to have at a networking reception. The thing, though, that saves me in those situations is questions.
What I am good at is asking questions. I ask one and I’m ready with another… and another after that… and if the person who I’m talking with don’t respond in-kind by asking me a question or two, I simply follow up with another question.
Now, this is not intended to be an inquisition or a deep dive into someone’s personal life. What it is intended to do is to generate conversation. Most people respond when asked as question and, if you ask an open question (not a closed, “yes” or “no,” type question), conversation flows naturally.
I always recommend that people have a few of their favorite opening questions at the ready:
- What brings you here?
- What are your key responsibilities?
- What was the last great book you read?
Be cautious about getting too personal too soon. Questions like, “do you have children?” could be awkward or potentially off-putting to people. However, if they say something about taking their daughter to her volleyball game, then it’s fair game to ask about family and the like.
Another word of caution: Don’t ask a question that you yourself are not willing to answer. And, though I personally violate the old unwritten rule about not discussing politics or religion at work on a daily basis, if you know you cannot have a civil conversation with another person about politics or religion, consider not bringing it up in that setting.
One final question for your arsenal… years ago, while I was teaching a networking workshop, one of the participants came up with a wonderful question. Note, this was a woman from Beijing, a biologist who studies plants. She spends most of her days in corn fields researching seeds. Really. Her question: “What is your favorite app?” Brilliant! Not only is this question open-ended, it also transcends geography, culture, gender, age, occupation, religion, interests, etc. The answer can be anything from Pokémon Go to Evernote… or, it could be “what’s an app?” which leads to an entirely different kind of conversation.
What’s your favorite question? Happy Networking!