Do you view networking as a necessary evil? Do you get tongue-tied at cocktail parties? Does making small talk at conferences rate somewhere between vacuuming the car and sitting in the front row of a heavy metal concert? Do we have some tips for you!
Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, has a number of surefire recommendations for lawyers on how to start a conversation, keep it going, exit gracefully, and even atone for a faux pas or two.
Best opening lines. “What’s been going on since we last spoke?” and “What do you do outside of work?” “Both are open-ended questions that are impossible to answer with a simple yes or no,” says Fine. “They also don’t put people on the spot, giving them a lot of leeway in terms of what they can choose to tell you.”
The key to being a good conversationalist. “Assume the burden of others’ discomfort,” she says. Good conversationalists forget about their own feelings—because let’s face it, we all feel a little awkward in these somewhat artificial social situations—and try to make everyone around them feel comfortable. This can include assuming the “host” role even if you are not actually the host. For example if you are at a table of strangers, look across the table and include everyone in the conversation.
What if you forget someone’s name? “Get over it!” Fine says. “You can’t be a good host if you forget names. So, simply say, ‘I’m terrible at names, please tell me yours and move on.” Don’t do what most tend to do in this situation—ignore them. “People will think you are a snob,” she says. “And that defeats the purpose of networking.”
How to subtly sell yourself in a social situation? Forget the elevator speech and instead use a single sentence that conveys an accomplishment or describes a project you are working on. “Don’t brag, don’t complain,” Fine explains. “Simply say something like ‘I’ve just been retained by a new client who is trying to sell his business.” This gives them an indication of your experience and expertise, and can serve as a portal to more conversation.”
What never to do. Don’t answer a question with just a yes or no. Always respond with a complete sentence. If someone asks how you are, say “I’m great, I just got back from a really interesting conference/case/vacation/event.” “Or,” says Fine, “give them an answer that has nothing to do with work. Tell them you went to your daughter’s soccer game over the weekend. This makes you seem like a three-dimensional likeable human being, not just an attorney.”
Finally, how do you gracefully get out of a conversation? “This is one that everyone struggles with,” says Fine. “I recommend acknowledging what you heard and then waving the white flag that indicates the conversation is over. For example, “That trip sounds really interesting. Tell me your favorite part before I go.” This allows both of you to get out of it in a dignified manner. “Another tactic is to ask for a referral. “You could say ‘I really need some advice, who do you know here who is in commercial real estate (or whatever topic you choose)?” This opens two options. The person can introduce you to someone else or, if they know no one who can help you, you can gracefully excuse yourself to find someone who can.”
Mary Ellen Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer who writes frequently about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care for more than 27 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” several travel guides, and has been published in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Woman’s Day, For Me, Vegetarian Times, Booklist and other publications.
- The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Rapport—and Leave a Positive Impression by Debra Fine (Small Talk Publishing; 2nd revised edition)
Related Dispatches on Attorney at Work
- Big Ideas for Small Talk: Top 10 Icebreakers by Mary Ellen Sullivan
- Afraid to Talk? Dealing with Social Anxiety by Mary Ellen Sullivan
- Buried in Business Cards? by Merrilyn Astin Tarlton
- Feature versus Benefit by Teddy Snyder