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The Art of Small Talk: A Young Person’s Guide to Great Networking

By Alison Rockwell

Published September 5, 2018 • 4 Min Read

ICYMI, the most career-advancing ‘networking’ you can do has less about online contacts, and more about excelling in small talk and making genuine connections with new acquaintances. If you’ve been avoiding attending networking events or reaching out to people in ways that can help boost your career, these quick study notes can help you master mingling — or at the very least make the process less painful.

Talk Less. Listen More.

Blame it on the teen angst/coming of age movies we grew up on, but many feel “allergic” to feeling awkward, which can result in a panicked need to fill up the empty space between two people with unconscious chatter.

If you find yourself delivering a rapid fire dialogue on various and unconnected subjects, you can almost guarantee that your conversational partner will look for a way out. As respected CEO’s will tell you, the key to success is to talk less and listen more so engage by easing naturally into a topic versus peppering somone with rapid-fire questions. Even if your co-converser is not giving you much to work with, they’ll usually drop a hint of an area of interest (Hint: People generally love talking about themselves!) or something else you can grab onto and run with – if you’re listening closely.

Be Armed (With a Backup Plan).

Backup plans are perfect for cottagers (think: power generators) and selecting your top three university choices. They are also exceedingly useful when it comes to entering a social situation where you won’t know anyone, but are expected to make easy and instant connections.

Having a few icebreaker topics that are interesting/relevant, but non-offensive in nature (ie: avoid politics, religion, or the dogs-versus-cats debate) to roll out as needed makes for good mingling. Ensure your introduction and delivery of said topics doesn’t sound rehearsed or stilted — and if your conversations are progressing naturally with ease, save them for another day.

No to Netflix. And the Weather.

As a conversation subject, what you are watching on Netflix is right up there with “It’s a hot one isn’t it!” You can do better than screen-time conversations or the weather (which is a universally painful topic. Unless you are in the middle of a monsoon.)

Eventually it might make sense to weave something related to your favorite series into the conversation to bond with someone over (people love a shared experience), but try not to lead with it. Gossip is another low hanging conversational fruit, especially if it is about someone in attendance. Or celebrities. Constantly struggling for topics? Find some podcasts, online newspapers or magazines like the New Yorker, Fast Company or The Atlantic which explore interesting current events, giving you many more topics to choose from.

There Will be Hits. And Misses.

Relax. Much like dating or cooking networking can seem easy sometimes and admittedly painful at other times. It is likely less a reflection of your skills and more theirs so don’t take it personally (unless you find everyone is avoiding you – which is a highly unlikely scenario.)

Like learning to wakeboard or trying to stay true to a week-long juice fast, the more frequently you do it, the easier it gets. Since you (hopefully) don’t expect perfection in everything you do, take the same approach with becoming successful at small talk and getting comfortable meeting and reaching out to people in your industry.

Know When to Walk Away. And When to Run.

Except for dental work, it’s not necessary to remain strapped into a painful situation.

If you’re conversing with someone who is completely disengaged (looking at their phone, constantly looking around the room) cut your losses and move on. Politely — because you never know when you may meet up again. Pushing water up a hill isn’t necessary on the small talk front. Give it your best try, then grab an hors’doeuvre or a beverage, and find a more welcoming group and try again.

If All Else Fails? Take a Toast-Masters Course.

Good people skills can provide lifelong benefits and are one of the best things to work on if they don’t come naturally to you. Having good emotional intelligence can be a key predictor of success and learning to pick up on nuances in small talk/networking scenarios is an area to consider investing in.

Try enrolling in a Toastmasters, or an improv course offered locally. It may sound extreme, but you will reap the benefits (and maybe you’ll find a secondary gig as an actor or stand-up comedian. Kidding. Maybe?)

Nervous about navigating your future career?

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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