Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

As you may know if you follow me on twitter, I’m out of town this week. I’m attending a conference for my day job – we produce and publish all the show dallies and things for the show, so it gets a bit crazy. As a result, this week I’ll be posting several guest posts for your enjoyment from a variety of fantastic writers / freelancers.

But that’s not really want this post is about.

Instead, this post is about conferences. I love the idea of a conference – probably because they are all about networking. But, generally at a large conference I freeze up. Unless I have a “purpose,” I generally find that I’ve run out of things to say and end up standing awkwardly in silence looking at someone wishing that the perfect brilliant comment would just pop out of my mouth and knowing it won’t. You see, I’m REALLY bad a small talk. Like, catastrophically bad at it. It’s a major problem, because it makes it really hard to meet new people.

For most people, the problem is that they are nervous meeting new people. That’s not really it. Meeting or talking to someone new doesn’t make me nervous, I just never learned how to make good small talk – I never know what to ask to create enough of a conversation to find common ground. And without that common ground, no conversing tends to happen.

I really need to get over this.

I’ve known it’s a weakness of mine for a while and I’ve actively been working to get better at it; I’d even say I’ve succeeded somewhat. Here’s what I’ve done:

1) Be a Copy Cat. My boss is REALLY good at small talk. He can talk to almost anyone about almost anything, in a way that allows him to come across as an attentive listener and an interesting conversationalist. He can ask a question and get right to the heart of the matter, whether it’s a probing question or just casual conversation. So, I pay attention to how he does this whenever I get the chance. Then, I mimic his methods when he’s not around. And, a lot of the time, they even work.

2) Compliment people. When you have no idea what to talk about, give someone a compliment. Flattery is always a great way to start a conversation and it makes the person naturally inclined to like you. Whether it’s complimenting something at an exhibitor’s booth (at a trade show like the one I’m attending) or at an educational conference where you just don’t want to sit alone for lunch, compliments are a great way to start a conversation.

3) Talk about the event. Whether at a party or a conference or something else, discuss the place you both are – it’s something you both clearly have in common. You can ask someone how they heard about the event, if they are enjoying it, or if they have any recommendations for things to see – most of the time they will ask the questions back and you can share your own answers.

4) If all else fails, talk about the weather. Yes its cliche. But it works. I spent an entire cab ride today from the airport to my hotel talking to the cabbie about the difference between the weather in NY and in Fl. He told me he wanted to come up north during the winter and see snow. Was it the most involved conversation I’ve ever had? No. But it was better than a silent ride.

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