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The Key to Small Talk: Keep It Small!

Scientific networking event
Scientific networking event

Mustering the courage to network at conferences can be difficult, one of the barriers is knowing what to talk about. Many people find it challenging to make small talk, it becomes easier when people know something about each other and can ask questions based on their knowledge. Bearing that in mind be sure to share information that others might be able to connect with. Tell them where you are from, what you do, or your favourite activities. If you tell people a bit about yourself, it makes it easier for them to think of something to say—and that makes them more comfortable speaking with you.

When you first meet someone the conversation usually has a very simple structure which starts with:

Setting talk. This is a discussion about the present environment—the room, the weather, traffic, how you got here, where you’re staying, why you’re here etc.
An example of setting talk would be asking: “when did you arrive in London?” then ask “how did you get here?”, “how long did that take?” “what’s the weather like where you’ve come from?”

Make sure that you don’t just ask a series of rapid fire questions add in some information about yourself. E.g. I got the bus from the airport which was great as I got to see the lots of sights on the way to the hotel, how did you get from the airport?”

And no matter that it can feel awkward, small talk is really important as it starts to build a connection and makes conversation becomes easier. Good conversationalists move quickly from setting talk to topic talk.

Topic talk: This refers to conversation about broader issues. So you could ask something like: “What talks are you planning to go to?” “Have you heard them talk before?” “Is that a particular area of interest for you?” “Are you working on something linked to that?” ”That sounds really interesting, I’d like to hear more…”

Try to vary topics, non linear conversations last longer than ones where you just discuss one subject. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s had a conversation that feels like it’s going well and then just peters out when you run both run out of things to say on the one topic you’ve been discussing. You don’t want to jump about randomly but try to look for opportunities to move from one subject matter to another. For example perhaps you’re chatting to someone about the talk they gave, you might then want to move on and ask them something about the lab they work in or other projects they have on the go, or what their future plans are.

And this should take you to a point where the conversation flows and becomes a bit more natural – although, remember this is a complete stranger so it’s unlikely that there will an immediate open flow of conversation. What you can hope for is that you get to understand each other a bit better and where it’s relevant start to develop a mutually beneficial relationship.

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