How to Survive Small Talk

“I was wondering if you had any tips regarding small talk, particularly at conferences and even in the workplace. I’m finding that I’m not very good at, especially in networking situations. I find it painful, and I don’t like the whole idea of it, which is why I’m probably not that good at executing it though I understand its value and need. I’d really appreciate any advice you could offer or resources that you might be able to point me, too.” –Ashley

So what exactly IS small talk? According to the Urban Dictionary, small talk is:

Useless and unnecessary conversation attempted to fill the silence in an awkward situation. Commonly backfires into feelings of loneliness and social discomfort. Usually is initiated by comments regarding the current weather, weather pattern of the past/future few days or major weather disturbances in the recent past.”

While small talk is something that every professional has to deal with, it is something that is essential in the world of PR. Whether you are meeting with a client or mingling with editors at an event, small talk is something that PR professionals must learn to love.  And if you want to stand out from the pack, it is something you will learn to master.

What is the key to being the Queen of small talk?

No, it is not hiding in the corner cuddling with your Blackberry. (Put that thing down.)

It’s preparation.

We make small talk everyday yet few people take time to learn how to effectively navigate those awkward moments. Whether we run into a new colleague in the hallway or see an old friend at the store, there is an opportunity to build a new connection and extend our network. You never know if the person you’re making small talk with will be your next boss, the investor in your first company or a new best friend. Small talk could be the skill that takes your career to the next level.

How do you get started?

Pinpoint Your Awkward Moment.

Pay attention to your habits. What is your go-to conversation starter? At what point in the conversation do things get awkward and what causes everything to bad? Once you pinpoint the moment in your small talk routine, you can find a solution for getting around it.

For example, I have a habit of shouting “How are you?!” and when they respond with “Good, how are you?” I awkwardly whisper “great” because I have no idea what to say. Now I keep a couple of short two-lined stories in my back pocket OR I enthusiastically shout “FANTASTIC” and people laugh. If you make people laugh they will remember.

Know what you are walking into.

My favorite thing about the internet is that you can find anything on it. (ANYTHING) When you are getting ready for an event or preparing to meet someone for the first time find out as much as you can about the situation you are walking into. Who will be at the event that you want to meet? Who works in a similar field as you? Who will be there that you know through mutual friends? What do you and the person you are meeting have in common? Doing some research ahead of time can leave you feeling confident and prepared instead of awkward and nervous.

Prepare conversations starters

Very few people can be interesting and clever on the spot but with a little preparation you can fool everyone into believing you are. Before taking off to networking events think about your goals for this event. Are you looking for a new job? Looking to land a big placement from an editor? What are you hoping to gain?

Prepare a couple of conversation starters so you don’t have to fall back on the classic “How’s the weather?” Try to find a way to start a conversation that will support your goal for being there. As long as you did you research on who would be there and who you want to talk to, this should be easy. For day-to-day small talk keep a couple of conversation starters in your back pocket and you will never find yourself awkwardly mumbling “What’s up?” to your colleague in the elevator.

Secondly, have a couple of interesting anecdotes for when people ask how you are doing. Make sure not to get too personal or overshare (no one cares that your little sister just had chicken pox) but have something in your back pocket and (again) make sure it supports your overall career goals.

Remind yourself how awesome you are.

Body language can say so much. Before walking into a networking event think of a few great things you have accomplished and remind yourself of how awesome you are.  You will walk in with a bit more confidence and soon you will be known as the queen of networking.

If all else Fails, compliment them.

I used to feel awkward randomly complimenting people but networking taught me how useful it can be. If you are overwhelmed and feel like hiding under a table, tell someone you like their shoes (or bag) or that article they wrote on brain surgery. Just make sure whatever compliment you give is sincere. They can always tell when a compliment is insincere.

How do you deal with small talk? Share in the comments!

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