It’s hard to advance your career without talking to strangers in person. When it comes to professional conferences, happy hours and other career-oriented events, chatting face to face with other humans is a somewhat necessary evil.
If, like me, you’re a bit introverted, the requisite small talk these meetings entail can feel excruciating. But I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to ease my discomfort with casual chitchat. Not only have I grown to enjoy these encounters, but I also have learned to coax other introverts into lively conversations.
Ask people about themselves. Even shy people like to talk about themselves. Asking open-ended questions helps grease the conversational wheels. So does showing genuine interest in people’s answers. Follow up with some additional questions and relevant information about yourself (because no one wants to feel like they’re being interrogated), and you have yourself an instant dialogue.
Throw in a couple of unique questions. Default questions like “So, what do you do?” and “Have you been to this trade show before?” tend to yield stilted, bland answers. For variety, ask people you meet something a bit more inventive and open-ended. Among my favorites: What do you like most about working at your company? Have you had a chance to explore town outside the conference — any fun sites you’d recommend? Have you tried the buffet yet — what was your favorite dish or dessert?
Share interesting tidbits. Complaining about the traffic, parking and weather is perhaps the most clichéd conversation starter known to humankind. It also paints you as a bit of a whiner. Instead, think of a couple of innocuous facts, anecdotes or news items to share with people you encounter throughout the day. A unique local art exhibit you read about, the Hollywood movie you saw being filmed downtown or the weekend’s predicted meteor shower fits the bill.
If possible, bring a wing person. Breaking the ice with people you don’t know is always easier with a buddy at your side. It’s certainly less daunting to circulate in a room full of strangers with a companion. And it’s easier to engage others when there’s two of you stoking the conversation. If nothing else, you can sneak off to a quiet corner and compare notes about the event’s high and low points thus far.
Seek out fellow loners. If you find yourself solo at a professional gathering where you don’t know anyone, scan the room for someone else standing alone, introduce yourself and try one or two of the aforementioned conversation starters. Most likely the person will be grateful for the save and more than happy to chat for a few minutes.
Don’t worry about being smooth. In the course of stepping beyond your comfort zone, you may stumble. You may come across as a tad awkward. Don’t sweat it. If anything, you’ll make your fellow awkwards feel less alone. Your goal isn’t to become a great conversationalist overnight. It’s to spend more time talking to others than staring into your drink.