Ah, that awkward moment when you arrive at an event and stand all alone while everybody else seems to be chatting and having fun. I went to a great keynote session at the SMPS Southwest Conference in Denver last week given by Debra Fine that helps people get over that moment. Apart from being an energetic and fun presenter, she gave some really interesting advice for those of us who are out in the world at conferences or events and feel uncomfortable approaching people. Her book, The Fine Art of Small Talk is on my reading list for this year.
1) Break the Ice
If you already know somebody, a great starter question is: “What’s been going on?” It’s an easy opener that doesn’t assume or put anybody in an awkward position of answering a question they don’t want to answer. If you don’t know somebody, figure out three questions ahead of time that you can both chat about, starting with the event itself like “Are you a member of X organization?” or “What brought you here today?”
2) Dig in Deeper
If you ask somebody a broader question like “How’s work going?”, follow up with more related questions like “Are you guys busy? What’s the most interesting project you’re working on? What areas do you specialize in?”
3) Play the Conversation Game
When somebody asks you a question, don’t use one word answers! Help them out by giving a little more detail they can follow up on. Instead of saying your weekend was “good” you can say, “It was good, I went hiking/biking/dancing/shopping/skydiving/etc.”
And don’t forget to listen to what they are – and aren’t – saying. Closed body language, short sentences, looking away all indicate you aren’t going to have a productive conversation, so move along and find somebody you connect with. My first instinct is to beeline for the bar or food area, where I can catch people in line and introduce myself on common ground. If you’re task oriented, give yourself a goal of meeting three new people before you leave. (I bet you stay longer than you think!)
And if all else fails, look for those people who are standing alone – chances are they are feeling the same way you did at the beginning of this post.