A couple weeks ago I had two separate new law grads email me asking about networking. I spent about 30 minutes or so talking on the phone with each of them. (Yes, I gave them my number and took time out of my day to speak with them.) They were having problems with the networking events they were attending. Both felt as though that the events were wastes of time and were frustrated that they were not meeting new people or establishing relationships at the events they were attending.
We’re also approaching high season for the most banal of networking events – the holiday party. I attended two parties last evening. I’m sure I’ll be going to at least half a dozen more this year, as I imagine most people do.
The problem with “networking” events is that many people have zero idea of how to engage with people. A novice approach generally goes like this:
- Decide to go to a networking event that you’re only tangentially involved with
- Arrive late
- Head straight to open bar, consume free drinks
- Speak only to the few people you already know
- Leave early
- Become frustrated that you never get anything out of networking events
Sound familiar? The people that do the above are clueless and are destined to be slaving away at a cubicle 10 years into their career. Don’t be them. The problem many people face is that they are uncomfortable in approaching strangers. Self-doubt and anxiety can often give rise to crippling questions such as:
- What do I talk about?
- What if they ignore me?
- What if they think I’m not interesting?
- What happens if there is a lull in the conversation?
With all these questions and self-doubt piling on, people become insular and awkward before they have even approached another person. If you’re not the outgoing sort, introducing yourself and starting a conversation can be a tough nut to crack. Many people write it off entirely, believing they are not that sort of person or are too introverted to strike up a conversation. To get over this, you have to learn how to make “small talk.”
As I write this, I have a mental image of a person groaning as they read it. Many people hate small talk. They think they can’t do it, or that it is useless or trite. Here’s the thing, small talk helps grease the wheels. It helps soften the rough edges of initially interacting with a new person. It helps blunt the anxiety both people likely feel when interacting with a new person. If you haven’t spent much time going to parties and events, it might seem impossible to enter into conversations with strangers, but you can learn small talk. It takes some time, effort, and practice – but anyone can learn to do it.
The ARE Technique
First, identify someone who seems approachable. Someone by themselves or just a couple of people. Make eye contact, and confidently go and introduce yourself. Most people can do this part, but flounder at what comes next. Dr. Carol Flemming, a communications consultant, has a small talk strategy that almost anyone can follow and utilize, call the ARE Technique – anchor, reveal, encourage.
An anchor is simply a shared observation. Either something related to the event you are at, or a topic that is on hand. Even the dreaded “weather option.” Don’t worry stressing over finding something incredibly interesting to say. Almost everyone realizes that these initial forays are simply the polite and necessary first steps required before you move into substantial conversation.
“They really laid out the red carpet for this years party.”
The reveal is merely sharing something about yourself, that is related to the anchor. By offering up something about yourself, you are extending yourself out to the other person and providing them with something to respond to.
“There is a much larger crowd than there was when I attended the party last year.”
Time to get the other person involved. Ask questions related to your reveal that seek to find out if the other person has some connection to your reveal. These questions usually start off with something like:
- Tell me about…
- Have you ever…
- What brought you to…
- How do you know…
- When did you…
“Is this your first time coming to the party?”
At this point you should be able to push the conversation along, either continuing to use the ARE technique, or segueing into a more in-depth conversation.
- “It’s your first time? How did you hear about it/who invited you?”
- “You were here last year as well? I’m surprised we didn’t bump into each other. Did you see/Do you know…?”
It’s a very simple technique that almost everyone should be able to use immediately. It might still be a bit awkward at first, but like everything else, you’ll get better with practice. Give it a try at the next holiday party you attend and see if you aren’t able to put your small talk anxiety to rest.