By: Ivan Misner, a Special to Overdrive
One of the most important aspects of networking is the small talk that occurs at networking functions. These ice-breaking conversations are important because they are the first opportunities to identify and begin to grow connections with other people, connections that may lead to business referrals in both the short and long term.
The fear of small talk is a common objection those who shy away from networking. Many people simply dread thought of having to carry on conversations with people they don’t know. It’s easy to label these people as shy, but only a small minority of people is too shy to enjoy talking with others. Most people aren’t afraid to talk, they are just intimidated by the task of finding something to talk about.
For this reason, it’s important for business owners to stay on top of pop culture and current events. The latest issues and stories in the news are great ways to break the ice and help you find common ground with a person you may never have met before and with whom you may not have much in common. But with the media explosion, it’s increasingly difficult to have a firm grasp on water-cooler talk, particularly when it comes to conversations with people in different age brackets.
So, how do you start — and maintain — a conversation at a networking or other event with someone you don’t know at all?
The answer is clear. . . just ask questions. This sounds simple, because it is. A great way to get people to talk is to ask a few “feeder” questions that will help you learn what the other person is interested in. Then, simply home in on that subject. You don’t have to know anything about the topic to converse about the topic. You just have to know enough to ask the questions.
Now I can hear many of you groaning: “I’m already working 24-7, now I have to constantly search for articles on pop culture and current events?”It’s easier you think. Mobile news sites such as CNN.com are have set up their pages with easy-to-read convenient categories, such as Top News, Sports, Entertainment and Tech. Either at night or first thing in the morning, you take just a few minutes to read the headlines, and maybe the first one to two sentences. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about “what’s hot” from just a cursory glance. You have enough information to start asking questions and conversing with someone new. Another important point: By asking questions, you make the person you’re talking to feel like an expert.
I still remember when I realized the value of asking questions and letting someone answer them. I was flying for business, and just prior to taking off, I struck up a conversation with the person seated next to me. I’m not sure what started the conversation, but I wasn’t familiar with the business he was in, and I asked a question. That question led to another, then another. . . and at the end of that two-hour flight, I realized that he had talked the entire time. We made a good connection, I had learned something new, and, as we were gathering our belongings, he complimented me for being a good conversationalist. A savvy networker I know named Susan reads the sports section in her newspaper from cover to cover every single day, even though she has zero interest in sports. “Why on earth would you subject yourself to this?” I asked her, as I am admittedly not a sports fan, either. She replied, “My networking functions are primarily attended by men. I don’t want to stay on the sidelines while important conversations are going on, conversations that invariably start with a discussion about last night’s game.”
The bottom line is this: Taking a few minutes each day to browse enough headlines to arm yourself with enough knowledge of current events, pop culture — and yes, even sports — to be able to ask questions and get a conversation going is simply a good networking strategy. As a bonus, you’ll learn a lot from these conversations you might never have otherwise.