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Big Ideas for Small Talk

By Mary Ellen Sullivan

Some people are born schmoozers and like nothing more than to meet and mingle at professional events. For others, this is about as painful as watching a “Kardashians” marathon at gunpoint.

Top 10 Icebreakers

If you fall into the latter category — and most of us do to some extent — it pays to have a few tricks up your sleeve. Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” offers her top 10 icebreakers. She suggests using them at those ubiquitous business/social occasions like fundraisers, association cocktail parties, conferences and dinners where you need to start a conversation with a colleague or potential client you don’t know well or would like to meet.

  1. What is your connection to this event?
  2. What keeps you busy outside of work?
  3. Tell me about the organizations you are involved with.
  4. How did you come up with this idea?
  5. What got you interested in … ?
  6. What do you attribute your success to?
  7. Describe some of the challenges of your profession.
  8. Describe your most important work experience.
  9. Bring me up to date.
  10. Tell me about your family.

According to Fine, what all of these have in common is that they are personal, but not too personal. “Your goal is to build a business relationship,” she says, “while still getting to know more about a client or potential client. If you are talking to an existing client, they probably already know you are good at what you do, so you just want them to see you on a more human level.” It’s this connection that will most likely cause them to refer you to a friend or associate.

The other thing to note about these icebreakers is that they give control to the other person, allowing them to decide just how much information they are willing to share and where they want to set the parameters of the conversation. “Your job is to help the other person feel comfortable in what could be a potentially uncomfortable social situation,” says Fine. “You never want to put them on the spot.”

Conversation Killers

Putting people on the spot often results from asking a question to which you do not know the answer. “Unless the person is wearing a nametag that identifies their place of work, never ask ‘How is your job with XXX Enterprises?’” she says. “If they have lost their job, you will just make them feel bad, and you have just killed the conversation — and an opportunity to build a new business contact.” Here are some other conversation killers:

  • Are you married? Do you have any kids? (If the answer is no, where do you go from there?)
  • How is your husband/wife? (What if he or she left, took all the money, and won custody of the kids and the house?)
  • Is that real? Are those real? (If you have to ask why these questions are inappropriate, perhaps you should leave the networking to someone else.)

You can find more conversational tips at Debra Fine’s website.

Illustration ©ImageZoo.

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Mary Ellen Sullivan Mary Ellen Sullivan

A Chicago-based freelance writer, traveler and the author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” a blog about joy, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care, for more than 30 years. She was the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides. Mary Ellen passed away in March 2016. You can read about her extraordinary life here.

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