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Posted on Sun, Sep 4, 2011 : 6 a.m.

Small talk that's not so talky

By Greg Peters


If our conversational partner looks like this, we need to ask more interesting questions.

Photo by Jason Scragz

OK, let's admit it. To many of us, making "small talk" with strangers is a painful and awkward task. It rates somewhere around getting our teeth cleaned at the dentist on the "Things We Like To Do" scale.

Unfortunately, it is also a necessary skill when it comes to networking — especially at an event. The alternatives are to either sit silently or to try to sell, neither of which are likely to achieve our ultimate networking goals.

So, what's a reluctant networker to do?

Here's the trick: Let them do all the talking. Your goal is just to learn a little bit about them. To achieve that, you can use just one or two parts of the INFER process. Ask a few questions and then you only have to listen.

  • Interests: So, what sorts of fun things do you like to do when you aren't selling insurance?
  • Networks: I'm new to this group. Do you have any recommendations on how to make the best of it?
  • Focus: So what sort of exciting things do you have planned for the upcoming year?
  • Epic Journey: I've always been interested in accounting. You've been in it for a while. What do you see as the most important differences since when you started?
  • Relationships: You're heading out to Phoenix for the holiday weekend? Do you have family there?

Now, the funny thing is, the folks you chat with will likely be absolutely tickled that you are asking them questions. It gives them a chance to be the star. Paradoxically, despite the fact that you will be saying very little, it's highly likely that they are going to think that you were one of the most interesting people they met at the event.

Of course, you should answer any questions they ask you (and if they are good networkers, they will). After all, in an ideal world, the conversational breakdown should be right around 50/50. Don't sweat it, though, so long as you aren't the one who is speaking 90 percent of the time.

Remember, your goal here is just to make the contact and learn a little bit about him or her. You should leave going deeper into the INFER process for a one-to-one meeting after the event.

Keeping that in mind, though, you will find that asking some of these simple questions will make networking a lot more fun and interesting. It's certainly a lot better then a 30-minute conversation about the weather!

Greg Peters, founder of The Reluctant Networker LLC, writes, speaks and coaches about good networking practice. For more tips that can help your connections count, go to