There is an art to making small talk and the sooner you master it, the more natural it will feel to network. Here are my best tips for connecting with anyone.
First and foremost, the key to any successful conversation is to find common ground—that’s obvious. But what if you don’t have anything in common with the person standing next to you at your next work function or networking event? My next best advice is to find a topic that the other person is passionate about. I recommend starting with the question “how do you spend most of your time?” This question is vague enough that it lets your conversation partner decide whether to discuss work or hobbies. It also puts the conversation in his or her hands and gives you the opportunity to learn more about your companion without asking too many personal questions.
You would also be well-served to follow your mother’s advice and stay away from potentially controversial topics such as politics and religion. And forget about the weather—it is the most overused small-talk starter in the history of conversation. Instead, explore universal topics that most New Yorkers have at least some interest in—perhaps hot new restaurants or new exhibits (it never hurts to buff up on these topics before you go out).
Finally, it can be intimidating to go up and start a conversation with a new contact, especially if your goal is scoring a new job. The best way to get comfortable is to practice. Have an acting session with a close friend, coming up with different scenarios where you would be in a position to network with someone. Pretend you are being introduced to an executive at a cocktail party, or meeting a friend of a friend who works in an industry you want to break into. Being comfortable will help you appear more confident, which is key to making a good impression.