Career

How to make small talk at a party or work function

It's all about knowing the little unwritten rules.

By Karyn Henger

Why is it that it’s easy to strike up a conversation at the school gates or when you’re in a queue, yet the moment we’re put into a room full of strangers and expected to ‘mingle’ we freeze up?

Making small talk with strangers at a work event - or even at your friend’s birthday party - can be uncomfortable for many of us. What do you do when the person you’re chatting with excuses themselves to speak with someone else? What if everybody in the room seems to be engaged in conversation except you? How do you start a new one? How do you join in with a group?

Angela Cameron is an Auckland business woman and recruiter whose role revolves around meeting people and networking. Even though she’s been doing it for years she says she can still feel anxious and sweaty-palmed walking in to an event.

“It can be the most difficult thing and I think no one really likes networking. But I think you can also talk yourself into it being really hard.”

Her advice is: “Don’t worry about it so much. Relax and acknowledge it for what it is. Put your brave hat on and remember that everybody’s in the same boat.”

She suggests taking the pressure off by just aiming to make a connection with one or two other people.

“You’re much better off making one great connection in the whole evening than 20 terrible ones. They might be the one person who changes your life, or they might just be a really interesting person.”

Cameron has developed some strategies around mixing and mingling so we asked her to share her best advice:

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Conversation starters

People angst a lot about starting a conversation, but it’s best to go with the obvious and use the context of being at the event to start the conversation off: What brings you here? How do you know the host? Have you been to one of these before? How are you enjoying it? Which company are you with and what do you do?

“It’s about finding the commonality,” says Cameron. “People love talking about themselves so ask lots of good questions.”

To broaden the conversation it helps to have some knowledge about what’s happening in your industry in a wider context, as well as what’s going on in the news, or about any topical sporting or entertainment events that are happening.

Stay in the moment

If you’re worried about who you’re going to talk to next you’re not going to have a good conversation with the person standing right in front of you, and they’ll be able to tell that you’re not really listening. Forget about what’s next and just enjoy the conversation you’re having.

Head for the bar

The reason we’re not fazed about chatting with strangers at the school gates or when we’re in a queue is because in those situations we’re occupied ‘doing’ something and that makes us feel less vulnerable. When you find yourself at a loose end, head for the bar or tea/coffee station or even the bathroom, where everyone has a clear purpose. People tend to do this alone, making it easier to strike up conversations. Chatting with people in the car park as you arrive can also be helpful. They might be the familiar face you are thankful for later in the evening.

Do your homework

Prior to the function input all of the details into your phone (address, parking options and names and contact details of hosts, plus names of guest speakers). Nothing raises stress more than being late or lost or not being able to find a park – or forgetting the host’s name.

At the event, if you're not confident of remembering people's names, take yourself off into a corner or to the bathroom to put notes into your phone after you've met someone new. Cameron has also ducked out to call her business partner to have him remind her of someone’s name when she has run into them and drawn a blank.

She shares this embarrassing anecdote to save us from doing the same: “Years ago I attended a function and was seated for lunch right next to the guest speaker - I had no idea who he was and made a complete fool of myself. Luckily he thought it was hilarious but for me it was Lesson Learnt.”

A little loitering is okay – but no sidling

There is an art to breaking into a group that is engaged in conversation. If you sidle up and just stand there it’s going to be awkward – awkward if the whole group stops talking, and equally so if they don’t. Cameron suggests not even attempting this unless you know someone in the group well: stand a little behind the group and give a little wave when that person looks up so you can catch their eye – then they can bring you into the fold.

An even better idea

… Is to cast your eye around the room for the lonely soul standing on their own, and make a beeline for them. “That awkward person you might overlook could be the most important person in the room for you. I have met some amazing people who I couldn’t have got in front of otherwise,” Cameron says. “People remember you for helping them out of that awkward spot too. I’ve gone to functions year after year and there have been people there that have remembered me for that. It makes you feel good.”

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Keep one hand free

When we're feeling awkward we don't know what to do with our hands. Having a drink in one hand helps - so does putting our hands in our pockets - but keep one hand free to shake hands and meet and greet others.

That means refraining from too many hors d'oeuvres too - those things are so challenging to eat nicely anyway. “They’re meant to be bite-sized but it’s a man bite size,” Cameron observes.

‘Working the room’ is so yesteryear

“'Working the room' insinuates it’s all about volume and throwing your business card at people,” Cameron says. “But actually the key is making real connections.” As mentioned earlier, give yourself a break and focus on making just one or two really good connections.

Don’t go back for seconds

You’re better to keep circulating than return to someone you’ve already spoken to. The exception is if you return with someone you’d like to introduce them to.

Don’t ‘hog’ people

One of the secrets of mingling is in knowing how long to hold someone in conversation. You don’t want to ‘hog’ someone, in Cameron’s words. So how long is too long? If it’s informal, like a friend’s birthday party, you might spend half an hour or more yabbering away to the same person. But in a more formal or business setting the limit is probably a few minutes.

“The key is to read the cues from the other person,” Cameron says. “If they’re starting to look around or look fidgety , or they’re looking at their drink quite a lot, they’re probably thinking it’s time to move on. It’s not a negative towards you at all, they might have their own set of objectives for the evening as well.”

Don’t take it personally

If the person you’re talking to seems to be scanning the room for someone else to talk to it, don’t take offence. Cameron suggests, “It might be that they’ve invited their best client along and they’re not able to find them and they’re looking for them, so you don’t know what’s going on in their world.”

Give thanks

When someone you’ve met moves on, tell them you’ve enjoyed meeting them and thank them for their time. If it's appropriate, exchange cards and say that if you’re able to help in any way, you’d like that.