Mastering Holiday Events: How to go from Small Talk to big talk

Whether it’s a holiday happy hour or a seasonal networking event, your calendar is usually packed this time of year. Learn how to make the most of these events by turning small talk into big talk with the following tips (that are actually helpful year-round).

By Phil Stella

A reader recently asked about using small talk at networking events or meetings. My simple response – just say no to small talk. It doesn’t help you achieve your goals and it’s annoying. Go for “Big Talk” instead.

Now, for the rest of my rant I will share some of my more specific thoughts and helpful guidelines when it comes to making small talk.

This is not a Seinfeld episode. When you’re attending a business, professional group or networking event, talk should never be insignificant. You’re there to meet people who can help you or who you can help, so just say no to small talk! It’s all about nothing, kinda like Seinfeld.

Don’t waste time. You must value your time and theirs, so don’t waste it on trivialities. Politely and creatively start talking about the other person. Ask about the company, the location, their products or services, the story behind the name if it’s unusual or what they like most about what they do. That’s Big Talk because it’s more important to the other person than the weather, the local sports teams or how good the food is. Unless they serve shrimp.

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Get to the point. When you do start with small talk for a few minutes, then shift to more business-related content, your strategy looks lame and is totally obvious. So… cut to the crash at the get-go.

Take control of the conversation, if needed. If you start the conversation first, you can quickly learn enough to determine if you want to know more. At that point, if the other person doesn’t return the professional courtesy by asking about you, don’t assume lack of interest. He or she didn’t realize it was your turn! So, wait for them to take a breath and then proceed to answer the question they didn’t ask. They won’t realize how you’ve finessed the conversation.

Don’t mix marketing and networking. Networking is all about sharing information, ideas and resources. Concisely describing your value proposition is networking. Asking for a follow-up meeting to discuss their needs is marketing. Asking for referrals or to promote your business in any way at this point is marketing… and it’s also lame. How could a stranger, who knows nothing about your business, refer other people to you?

Prepare questions in advance. You always want to be sure to ask good questions to keep your audience engaged. Here are some examples of good vs. not-so-good questions:

Good: What do you/your business do? This is a good question because it lets them talk about their favorite topic – themselves.

Not-so-good: What keeps you up at night? While interesting, thought-provoking and memorable, these types of questions are a bit too personal.

Good: Do you get value from ______ (organization sponsoring the event)? This is a good question and can yield useful information for you, especially if you’re new to that particular group or event.

Not-so-good: Are you more like an eagle, a lion or a Golden Retriever? … really? Really. People do ask these types of philosophical, odd questions. It’s bad enough when you get them in a job interview, but nobody wants to answer something like this at a networking event.

Good: Can you recommend a good accountant on this side of town? These types of questions are also good, especially if you are genuinely looking for a particular recommendation. People love to be useful and love to share good recs when they have them.

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So, just say no to small talk and yes to starting off networking conversations with big talk instead. See if that doesn’t engage other people better and faster and define you as a great conversationalist. Best wishes for successful schmoozing this holiday season and beyond!

Phil Stella runs Effective Training & Communication, www.communicate-confidently.com, 440 804-4785, and empowers business leaders to reduce the pain with workplace communication and sales pitches A popular trainer and executive coach on writing, communication styles and sales presentations, he is also on the Cleveland faculty of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program.