How To Avoid Small Talk And Have Actually-Cool Conversations When Networking
On the surface, networking is about handing out business cards while getting business-blitzed off boxed wine. But these events are also asking for a particularly subtle type of human sacrifice—interesting conversation.
Often, we go into situations with the best intention of being a sparkling conversationalist. But the unspoken rule of approved topics always seems to be frustratingly narrow: Weather, job titles and (depending on your proximity to the midwest) sports.
That last one was always a stake into the proverbial heart of conversations I would attempt at industry events in Chicago. At the risk of over generalizing, the heartland really loves their sports teams—leaving me stranded with a group of people both bemused by my attempt at competence and saddened that they have to return to the topic of weather patterns.
I often left those events frustrated at all the missed opportunities. Why was something that should be so easy (human conversation) actually pretty hard? Was I in fact, myself, monotonous?
The answer turned out to be yes, of course I am. Most people are. At least in these contexts. But, according to Jordan Hayles, author of forthcoming Your Brand is Boring, we don’t have to be.
A brand strategist and writer, Hayles works with her clients to alleviate many of the same pain points around networking that we all share. The insecurities, confused signals, and ideas around professionalism that lead us to hole up in the safety of a boring conversation.
Boldly proclaiming “small talk as the enemy,” Hayles has developed a way to make networking, dare I say it, fun? Her process: Wrap your messaging in humanity and prepare, prepare, prepare.
Identify the feeling you’re trying to communicate.
Think about how you want to engage with a particular event. Often, we go with a goal that puts one in a used car salesman’s mindset. By making your agenda all about getting an interview or nabbing a few clients, one can often feel like they have to sell themselves hard in order to get what they want.
Which, according to Hayles, is exactly the wrong approach. People don’t like being sold to. Instead, try reframing your agenda from what you can get, to what you can give. Hayles recommends that you make it your intent to be a calming force during the event, make three people laugh, or act as a conduit for others to connect. For example, if your intent is to be helpful, something as simple as offering to help take a group photo can lead to an organic conversation.
Your messaging is experimental.
This is a strategic focus on what your message is at this event. And it will shift depending on the type of event and/or connections you’re trying to make. Hayles posits that for this to work, you need to pay attention to the listeners reaction as you test out what you’ve prepared. Are they interested? Did they ask more questions, or ask for your card? Did they seem preoccupied or try to change the subject?
Because failure is inherent in the experimental process, framing it as such in your own mind will make the inevitable less scary, while also making you an observer. The more data you gather, the better you can tailor your pitch for next time.
Your emotional clarity matters.
You should take the time to check in with yourself. Analyze if you are feeling bad, why, and if there is anything you can do—breathing exercises, napping, changing your outfit—that can put you in a better mindset. Because if you are not feeling good, that will affect your ability to engage in any meaningful way with the people around you.
By wrapping the meat of her purpose at a networking event, in the more human element of emotion, Hayles advice encourages deeper and more engaged connections. Preparation and intentionality do not negate your authenticity in these moments. They offer the opportunity for you to remove the nerves that accompany being ill-prepared, and allow for more boldness and creativity when trying to network.
But what if, despite preparing beforehand, you still struggle to avoid small talk? Hayles final tip: Befriend the space-maker by sharing what you’ve learned at their event. Take the time to write and design an engaging summary of the event and pass it along (for free and with no obligation on their part to publish) to the event coordinator.
Most likely, they will appreciate that you took the time to provide a super helpful piece of collateral for them and either could: Keep you in mind for the next event, or pass your summary (on which you will most definitely include your name and contact information) on to all those that attended. By offering a helping hand, you are giving potentially hundreds of people access to your work and initiative.
Leaving you, business-buzzed and satisfied. And you didn't even have to talk sport.
Words: Rachel Seimens
Photos: Daria Kobayashi Ritch