Law Ruler April 2024
Ready Set Scale 770
share TWEET PIN IT share share 0

How to Make Conversation at an Event

By Mary Ellen Sullivan

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!

how to make conversation

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.

1. How to Make Conversation: 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.”

2. 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.

3. 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.”

4. 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.”

5. 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 likable human being, not just an attorney.”

6) 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.”

Related Resources

  • 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

Categories: Communications Skills, Networking for Lawyers, Rainmaking, Relationships
Originally published March 5, 2023
Last updated July 28, 2023
share TWEET PIN IT share share
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.

More Posts By This Author
MUST READ Articles for Law Firms Click to expand

Welcome to Attorney at Work!

Sign up for our free newsletter.


All fields are required. By signing up, you are opting in to Attorney at Work's free practice tips newsletter and occasional emails with news and offers. By using this service, you indicate that you agree to our Terms and Conditions and have read and understand our Privacy Policy.