‘Tis the season to be jolly…but for many of us, the prospect of having to give up several precious evenings to network and make conversation with people who are new to us and who we may have little in common with, can sometimes seem a bit daunting and tiresome.
Being a good conversationalist is important at any time of the year, but particularly at Christmas. While we might find ourselves being propelled into an array of social gatherings we would rather avoid, it’s helpful to have some tricks up our sleeve to handle such situations.
Contrary to belief, you don’t need to be the biggest extrovert or most confident individual to hold an interesting and engaging conversation with someone new. If you would like to be a brilliant conversationalist this Christmas, and a welcome sight on the festive social circuit, here are five practical tips to help you on your way…
- Embrace the 50/50 rule
The perfect conversation should be a healthy balance of talking and listening, with equal sharing by both parties. If you find yourself dominating the conversation, it’s important to be aware and try to shift focus onto the other person, maybe via some of the questions below. Equally, if you have remained silent in the conversation for a while, take the initiative to open up and share more about yourself. I used to think that it was only appropriate to talk about yourself if someone asked, but with maturity and wisdom I’ve realised that very few people ask the questions you hope they will. If you don’t speak up, your silence may be mistaken for lack of interest in the conversation.
- Ask meaningful questions
The goal of any conversation at a networking or business function is to try and find some common ground, to see if it’s worth establishing a longer term connection. As the theory goes, there are six degrees (or fewer) of separation between any two people, and so if armed with a few probing questions, this will help you to find the natural connections that already exist between you…
“What’s your connection to the event?” – this question can be great for uncovering mutual contacts and usually instigates a detailed answer.
“What’s keeping you busy at the moment?” – open-ended questions can be a clever tactic, as they give the other person a chance to open up about work or their outside passions interests. Such a question can help to bring some enthusiasm to a conversation, and particularly if you sense the person would rather be elsewhere!
“How did you originally get into your line of work?” – most people relish the chance to reminisce, and for some, the path they took to where they are now is an interesting one, and often unpredictable. This question encourages people to open up a little and can give you some helpful insight into their life.
If all three of these questions fail to ignite some warmth in a conversation, you know it’s probably time to move on and find someone else to speak to!
- Steer the conversation towards some common ground and interests
There’s nothing worse than an entire evening of small talk, where conversation just isn’t ‘clicking’. In a situation like this, you need to take it upon yourself to move on from ‘shop talk’ and find some common ground, and a topic both of you are interested in. To do this, have a handful of ‘safe’ topics ready prepared, such as the most recent book you read or film you saw (it’s best to avoid politics or religion at this stage), which you can talk easily and enthusiastically about, and which might help to energise stale business conversation. You will know when you hit on a topic another is interested in too, as the mood of the conversation will change, and smiles will form. Hopefully conversation will then begin to flow a bit more naturally.
- Seek out people you are genuinely interested in
It was at one of my first ever Christmas networking events in London (some 15 years ago) that I encountered, and formed a lasting friendship with someone who is now an important business mentor to me. Because I had a genuine interest in meeting him face-to-face and talking to him, the conversation was easy and fascinating.
There is little point in spending an evening stuck in conversation with someone who you have very little interest in, when you could be having a much more purposeful and fulfilling chat with someone who you are genuinely keen to speak to. It may take a bit of confidence to go up to them, but you will try far harder with the conversation if it’s potentially beneficial, and dialogue will flow a lot more naturally.
- Become a good storyteller
Most people love a good, memorable story. A really clever tactic can be to have a few nice stories under your belt, ready to throw into conversation at an opportune moment. It could be a story you read about in a magazine, something that’s been in the news or a personal childhood memory…but the good thing about stories is that our brain retains them, even after a busy working day.
People love talking to those who are open to sharing a little bit of themselves, and storytelling is a fun, light-hearted way to do that. Very often, stories also get other people in the conversation sharing too, when they realise they’ve had a similar experience they can talk about.
Ultimately, when it comes to Christmas networking, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to say something strikingly intelligent to everyone you speak to. The majority of what you say will be forgotten, but people will remember how you made them feel. If you were warm, friendly and sincere, sharing a little bit about yourself and encouraging others to do the same, you will no doubt be someone who people are happy to see again.