Mastering small talk: The art of schmooze when networking for your small business

Many of us have made that New Year’s Resolution to be better at networking. So, we’ve developed and refined our “elevator speech,” that 90-second introductory speech that describes who you are and what you do professionally. We’ve practiced in front of a mirror or with others, so we appear comfortable, self-assured, and natural.

So, you give your elevator speech, and the person you’re with gives his or her elevator speech, so what happens next?

Depending on where you are…a meeting or seminar break-out session, an after-five networking event, a formal or informal gathering of business contacts or potentials…the next step is small talk, in the hope of engaging another person’s attention, interest, and business.

For many of us, though, it’s an uncomfortable moment, like the 7th grade middle school dance. There isn’t enough wall space for all the wallflowers, and you’re envious of the cool and popular people waltzing front and center.

When I want to build good conversation, I think of the opera “AIDA.” A good marketing presentation A) attracts Attention, I) Interests the other person in what you have to say, D) creates a Desire to connect, and A) takes Action to cement the connection. So does a conversation.

Good small talk engages the person you’re chatting with. If you turn the conversation to what they think or what they feel, they tend to feel important–you are seeking their input. Ask their opinion of a particular restaurant, a local attraction, a business issue concerning a community. If you disagree, that’s okay, but thank them for their input.

Look into the person’s eyes. A glance at their outfit or torso can put people on edge. A quick glance at that and then a view of the room shows that you don’t care. Eye-to-eye contact lets the other person know you are interested in chatting with them. And it should go without saying that unless you’re outdoors in bright sunlight, ditch the sunglasses. I am visually-impaired, and bright light of any kind bothers me, so I wear very lightly shaded sun glasses at networking events, so people can see my eyes.

Carry your business cards in an easily accessible pocket. They are your key to a future chat. If you have to dig for them, you maybe doing a painful-to-watch version of a 1960s “Hullaballoo” dance move.

Stick to small talk that’s appropriate for the venue. If you’re at a Chamber of Commerce networking event, ask someone how the city helps their business, or ask their opinion on who are the local innovators. If you’re at a meeting/conference with peers, ask someone who they think is cutting edge.

Stay away from controversial topics–politics and religion. Both cause polarized responses and angry debate. Sometimes, they come up. I try to change the subject. You may have fervent views, but you might offend a potential client or customer by voicing them.

We’ve just gotten through the holiday season and that tired debate over “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays.” When you’re networking, you’re chatting with a potential client. Why sour the moment by putting your right to celebrate what you choose before good manners. “Happy Holidays” always wins.

Sometimes, political chat is important. In my hometown, there’s an effort to build high-speed rail, and several politicians on both sides of the aisle are endorsing the effort, and working to better the business environment. I’ll praise that kind of effort, because it directly impacts my ability to do business.

If you’re at an event away from home, ask about good local restaurants, or attractions. People like to brag about their hometowns. I often ask, “If I have three free hours, what would you recommend that I see?” Sometimes, people can’t wait to become tour guides.

Oh, keep the language clean. Potty-mouth conversationalists get a quick reputation. And, be careful telling jokes, because you don’t know what might be offensive to someone else.

Good small talk also involves physical dexterity. You can’t reach out to shake someone’s hand, if your hands are full of a drink glass, small plate of snacks, smart phone, etc. Keep the phone on vibrate in your pocket, away from sight. Choose drink glass and napkin, or small plate of food and napkin.

If you simply have to end the chat, exit gracefully. “Excuse me, but I need to leave for a few. Nice meeting you” is a graceful exit line.

Networking is supposed to be fun. Savor the moment. Enjoy meeting new people.

A resource I found helpful. Fast Company’s “How To Master The Art of Small Talk”.


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.


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