I have a PhD in Communication, am an experienced public speaker, and love being the center of attention. But I’ve always hated making small talk with people I just met. It makes me really nervous and turns me into a babbling, sweaty idiot. This can be a big problem if your job requires that you spend a lot of time meeting people, as many of you fellow startup founders probably know. So I set out to solve my problem like any good scientist would – I spent years researching and testing until I had developed a foolproof formula for small talk success. (Well, something like that. Just read on…)
First, some background
When I was working on my Master’s degree at NC State University, I helped run the Writing and Speaking Tutorial Center. Part of my job there was to give presentations and workshops around campus to help students and staff develop better communication skills. Invariably, workshop attendees would ask for help with conversations and small talk. These workshops were usually focused on more formal topics, like public speaking and presentation skills. We didn’t even offer a conversation workshop; it simply didn’t occur to us that people would want something like that. After all, as many as 75% of people have a fear of public speaking, but I’ve never heard stats like that about conversational communication.
So I began to develop a set of go-to small talk topics and tips I could provide to workshop attendees and students in my classes. I even set aside entire class days to practice conversation. These classes were often my students’ favorite days of the semester.
A few years later, I started going to tech and startup events regularly, as part of my role as a co-founder of a startup. And suddenly I realized why everyone wanted to practice their conversation and small talk skills. This stuff is hard! I remember the first tech happy hour I ever went to in Austin. I stood in a quiet back corner for at least 20 minutes, steeling myself with a beer to go start that initial conversation with whatever unlucky stranger I ran into first. And I’m a pretty chatty, gregarious person, so I didn’t expect to get that nervous (which of course made me even more nervous). I’ve spoken to audiences of a thousand people; why would a conversation with one person freak me out? But there’s something particularly intimidating about those kinds of networking events.
I started to rely on that set of topics and tips I had taught my students. The list was expanded and refined as I worked on my PhD and attended more and more startup and academic events. Even now, I quickly scroll through it in my head at every happy hour, party, conference or seminar I attend in San Francisco and elsewhere, and I can always come up with something to talk to a new person about.
The formula (a.k.a. the Fore Cs)
Which leads to me to what I call the “Fore Cs” (laugh if you want – when I was in high school, I wrote an advice column for our newspaper called “Jennerally Speaking”, so I’m impervious to teasing about my questionable wordplay). Of course the Fore Cs aren’t actually foolproof or magic, but they are a reliable set of topics you can use to get any conversation going. Because I think that’s the hardest part – just getting the conversation going. Once you get started, you’re golden.
- Family – Do you have any children? Spouse/partner?
- Occupation – What do you do for a living? Where do you work?
- Recreation – What do you do for fun? Any hobbies?
- Education – Where did you go to school? Been to/ever thought about grad school?
- Community – What neighborhood do you live in? Have you always lived here? What’s your favorite restaurant in the area?
- Current events – Did you hear about a recent news event?
- Calendar – What are your plans for the upcoming holiday?
- Climate – Can you believe this weather?
These topics are not listed in order of importance or usefulness. Depending on the situation, some will be more appropriate than others. And please don’t ask these questions exactly the way they are written (if you do, you might be the most boring person at the event). Instead think of them as generic examples you should customize, fill in and expand upon for your own use. Try to contextualize or personalize these topics as much as you can, given the specific event and person you’re talking to. Use these topics as starting points and poke around until you find something that your conversation partner latches on to. And yes, some of these are most definitely clichés (anything about the weather, for example), but can they still work to get a conversation started. You just need to break the ice.
To round it out, some conversation tips
Even if you have a list of possible topics to discuss, a good conversation needs more than a topic. Here are a few other conversation tips:
- When in doubt, discuss the event itself. This isn’t listed in the Fore Cs (mostly because it doesn’t fit), but it’s a great way to get started. Discuss how you know the host, how you heard about it, what you learned, etc…
- Introduce yourself. If you see someone standing alone at an event, just go up to her/him and say hello. If you’re the one to start the conversation, you’ll feel more confident.
- Find something in common. It won’t take long before you find something you share with your conversation partner. Take advantage of that. Whether it’s a common acquaintance, shared interest, or overlap in work history, anything that you two have in common will make for an easier and more interesting conversation.
- Keep it short. Don’t dominate the conversation or talk too long in one conversational turn. Remember that this is a multi-party conversation, and other people want to participate so share the floor.
- Ask questions. Engage the person you’re talking to by asking questions. These can follow-up or probing questions that continue one conversational line, or questions that start an entirely new topic. Either way, questions are a good way to get the other person to talk while you get more comfortable.
- Be an active listener. Nod and use other nonverbal listening cues to indicate to the other person that you’re actively engaged in the conversation. A little encouragement goes a long way.
- Smile. It sounds silly, but if your face is relaxed, you’ll start to feel more relaxed. Plus, you’ll be more approachable with a smile on your face.
- Don’t be a douche. Stop pitching and start talking. Networking events are primarily about building relationships and no matter how cool your startup is, most of us go to those events to meet people and relax a little. We don’t want your 10-minute elevator pitch (unless we ask you for it, then feel free to give it to us).
- Practice. You’ll get better at this. You just have to keep doing it.
- Remember that most people are nice. They’re at that event for the same reason you are – to meet people. There’s really nothing to be worried about.
This is certainly not a completely comprehensive list of topics or tips, but they have worked for me. I’d love to hear what sorts of things work for you. How do you handle small talk? What works for you (or what doesn’t)?