A few years ago I was coaching a CFO of a large corporation on networking. I was listening to his background, about his successful eclectic career that got him to that position. I was enthralled.

I finally got around to asking him what precisely I could help him with and he said he had a lot of difficulty networking. I continued to question and dig and he finally said:

“Why would anyone want to talk to me?”

I looked at him dumbfounded and thought to myself “Why would anyone not want to talk to you!” It occurred to me that if this smart, interesting, articulate man was feeling this way, how were the rest of the us coping?

Here are five small talk tips to get you networking and schmoozing like Bill Clinton!

1. Look approachable

An interesting thing happens to people when they are nervous or fearful… they physically shut down. I have friends that have been described by others as snooty and aloof, but I know that they are just introverted and feeling out of their depth.

Get back to basics: smile, move towards people, shake their hand and say “I don’t know anyone here so I thought I’d introduce myself.”  That’s small talk in action.

2. Come prepared

It’s always easier when you have a few icebreakers up your sleeve.  That’s where small talk starts.

My favourite conversation starters at (any) events are:

The venue – “Have you been to the National Wine Centre before?”
The food – “Did you try the lemon tarts? Soooo worth the calories!”
The speaker – “So, are you a fan of Richard Branson?”
The event – “Are you a member of AMCHAM?”
Significant news of the day – “Did you watch the World Cup last night?”
A compliment – “I love your jacket, red is my favourite colour to wear.”

3. Ask questions

When you’re feeling nervous it’s much easier to let them do the talking. I remember when I was in my early 20s and had just started as a pharmaceutical representative with May & Baker and I was chatting to a professor at a conference.

I asked him what research was he currently working on and I listened with interest. Half an hour later I heard him telling a colleague what a great conversationalist I was!

Start with the what, why, when, how and who and you can’t go wrong.

4. Make it human

Reveal something about yourself and look for common ground – this is how you build rapport and keep the conversation going.

So when chatting about the lemon tarts, say something like

” I promised myself that I would give up sugar for the month of August, but it’s so hard when you’re at a conference (disclosure)… what is your favourite dessert? (common ground).”

Try and keep the conversation light and friendly – your mother was right – avoid discussing sex, politics and religion!  That’s not small talk.

5. Be brave

Time to don your confidence cloak, strike a pose and give yourself permission to shine.

And if you’re still a little freaked out do what Patricia Fripp suggests and travel with your own PR agent.

In Patricia’s words:

“Here’s what we do. When we arrive at an event, we alternately separate and come together. I’ll walk up to Susan as she is talking to someone, and she’ll say, “Larry, let me introduce you to Patricia Fripp. Patricia is truly one of the greatest speakers in the country.” And, I will turn around and say, “Larry, I bet Susan is too modest to tell you she’s the best-selling author of three books.”

It’s a lot of fun and it works a treat!


The biggest tip I can give you is to remember that you are not the only one who feels this way. Regardless of the other person’s age, experience or gender, the chances are they too are feeling overwhelmed and nervous… they may just have more experience at hiding it!

Sharon Ferrier
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All Good Presentations Start With a Confident Speaker

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