Thinking about small talk at networking events

There’s always something happening in Toronto, and I go to one or two events each week. Most events have a social portion where people network. I’ve found this part difficult in the past. I tend to treat events as mainly opportunities to catch up with people I already know from the Internet or previous interactions, with the occasional introduction to someone new or a serendipitously overheard conversation that leads to more thoughts.

When it comes to meeting new people, I find it easier to focus on what people are interested in or what people need, and to promise to send them my notes from the event. That’s what I wanted to share in the The Shy Connector. Now that I’m moving even further away from the standard model of people who go to these events, it would be great to figure out how to structure the conversation in order to give the most value. If I let the conversation take the path of least resistance to the “So, what do you do?” question, it seems to end up going nowhere particularly useful.

Basic thoughts I can focus on:

  • People are interesting and have fascinatingly quirky details. (Ex: JJ’s story about shipping his car to Europe.) Learning about these things lets me understand more about life, and possibly discover people I want to keep in touch with along the way.
  • I might be able to help people, such as by researching a topic of common interest and blogging about it.
  • People can be difficult to keep in touch with, so it helps to find a good excuse to take the conversation forward. Sharing my notes is one way to do that. If people blog, that’s usually a great way to learn more about what they think. Not that many people blog, though.

What do I really want out of these small-talk conversations? I’ve enjoyed it the most when people recognize me from previous events’ sketchnotes or my blog, and we can launch into a conversation with a clear, common interest. I can’t always have that, and I should take the initiative to make other people feel more comfortable. What do I want?

  • I want to learn from other people’s perspectives.
  • I want to find particularly fascinating people (for example, people who love learning and continuous improvement) and learn from them.
  • I want to help people save time by sharing what I’ve learned.
  • I want to learn along with people by exploring topics of common interest.

For the next few events I’m going to, I’ll try these conversational approaches:

  • “What are you looking forward to learning?” There must be some reason why people are picking this event over other things they could do with their time.
  • “What do you plan to do with it after the talk?” This might be a little harder, but it will be interesting to find people who plan to translate ideas into actions.
  • “Have you been to other events like this?” Comparisons can be enlightening, too.
  • “What else would you like to see presented?” Might turn into blog post or presentation ideas…