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I’m heading out to a conference in the morning. It’s designed to be a highly interactive event, and I have never met any of the other participants. To make myself feel at ease, I’ve researched some pointers on how to make small talk in a group of strangers.
Small Talk Can Be a Big Deal
Some people are natural-born talkers. My friend Pat often jokes about how she could have a conversation with a light post (she probably could!). Like the majority of people in the world, I consider myself to be friendly and outgoing when I’m around people I know, but less so among people who I haven’t met. I know there are others out there whose anxiety never really lessens when they are in groups where small talk is required.
There are ways to prepare for these situations and make them more comfortable, regardless of your comfort levels with groups of strangers.
Give Off a Good Impression
Nothing makes as good an impression as a genuine smile. Think about why you are at this event – after all, you chose to be there for one reason or another. Let people know you are happy to be there.
Your body language will also set you up for interactions. Uncross your arms, take your hands out of your pockets, stand at an angle toward others. All of these are cues that you are approachable and friendly.
Put your phone away!
Interacting with Others
If everyone seems to be clustered into groups, watch for openings. When someone walks away from a group, step into the opening and spend a few minutes just listening, so that you can catch up on the conversation.
Don’t cling to the first person you meet, even if you feel very comfortable with them. Make it a point to circulate amongst the crowd on your own.
Watch for people on the periphery. That woman hovering near the snack bar? The man standing alone, staring out the window? Chances are, these people are trying to find their place in the event, and will welcome your approach as someone they can talk to.
Be the Introducer. When someone joins a group you are in, make a point to welcome them and include them in the conversation. People will remember that you made them feel comfortable, and will go out of their way to do the same for you if the opportunity arises.
Create a Personal Challenge. If you approach the event with a personal challenge, you will be motivated to interact. Try to find five people from your industry, two art lovers, one who saw a good movie recently, three who have dogs. Whatever you can think of, will challenge you to open up and talk.
Conversations, and How to Create Them
Now that you’ve presented yourself as friendly, and found people to talk to, how do you start a conversation and keep it moving?
Be yourself, always – but offer up the best version of yourself.
Keep it positive – Mention that hike you went on over the weekend, but don’t talk about how tired you are. Bring up a favorite hobby, but don’t whine about the fact that you are too busy to pursue it right now.
Avoid standard questions such as “What do you do?” and “Where are you from?”, except for early in the event before everyone has heard them from every other person they’ve spoken with.
Avoid questions that can be answered in one word. Try asking “why” or “how” instead of “what”.
Balance the length of your responses to questions. Don’t give one word answers, but try to keep your response time to about twenty seconds. You want to give enough information for a follow-up question, but you don’t want to start a monologue.
Ask for advice. People love to give advice. Keep the topic light, though – nothing overly personal.
Be truly interested in the speaker. Listen to what he or she says, rather than just thinking about what you will say next. If you are really disinterested, don’t fake it – excuse yourself and move on to another group or person.
Give sincere compliments.
No matter the situation, remember that it is normal to feel some anxiety when you make small talk with strangers. You are not alone – most of the people you are speaking with feel the same, regardless of how confident they look.
Remember to treat everyone with the kindness and respect you would like to receive, and you just might find yourself having a wonderful time.