by Steve Adubato, PhD

It’s amazing how many professionals are overwhelmed by the prospect of walking into a social/business event and being expected to network and make small talk. Communicating effectively in these situations can be a very big deal. Corporations invest a lot of money having their people attend cocktail parties and industry functions and expect there to be a return on the investment. The stakes are high, impressions are made, relationships are begun, and sometimes this small talk can actually translate into big dividends and meaningful business. But it doesn’t just magically happen and the business professionals who are really good at it have practiced and made it a priority, which leads us to some important questions.

Q—Why is making small talk and networking so difficult for so many professionals?

A—The biggest reason is that we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to be witty, funny and charismatic. Such expectations can be intimidating and cause us to retreat to the bar or the nearest cozy corner table. In fact, most people at these functions are really just looking for someone who can smile, be friendly and open. Successful business small talk isn’t about being pushy or hawking your company’s products or services, and it is definitely not about making a deal on the spot.

Q—What are some of the keys to getting yourself in a positive frame of mind to network?

A—Remember, other people are also nervous and a bit anxious about these situations. The key is to get the other person talking by asking simple, open-ended questions known as conversation starters. Additionally, if you could just learn a simple, self-introduction, it could make a huge difference. For example; “Hi. I’m Joe Smith from XYZ company. Good to meet you.” At that point, most people will introduce themselves to you. If they don’t, simply follow-up with “And your name is?” Then get a little curious; “What does your company do, Bob?” Now start listening and paying attention; “Really. You guys design web sites? That’s interesting. Our company is updating our site in the next few months. Can I give you my card?” Usually in these situations, Bob will also give you his card. The key is to find common ground as quickly as possible and set the stage for a follow-up conversation, either in person or over the phone.

Q—So you are saying you shouldn’t try to conduct business right on the spot?

A—It depends on how you define “conducting business.” It is fine to get to know what the other person does and be aware of the potential for doing business. The mistake we make is to go too far and feel pressured to make something happen right on the spot. Not only does it make us uncomfortable, it also makes the other person feel uneasy. The key is to show interest in the other person’s world. Ask about their organization, their products and services. People want to start business relationships with people who make them feel good about themselves. Being self-centered is one of the worst mistakes we can make in social/business settings.

Q—But what is the appropriate time to talk about my business without being too pushy?

A—First, you do it in your introduction. Practice a brief (15-20 second) description of your organization; “We’re in outplacement services, so when someone loses his or her job, part of a severance package would be to hire us to help the person find a new job as quickly as possible. When it clicks, it’s really rewarding. What about your company?”