Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Keep Your Foot Out of Your Mouth When Making Small Talk at Conferences

By Don Gabor

The way I see it, all speaking is public speaking—whether you are presenting a speech at a local business club or making small talk with your colleagues and clients at a networking event. However, make one of the following conversation faux pas at the networking event and your career and professional image could be headed for trouble. Here are the most common and career-crunching mistakes.

1. Making inappropriate comments—even in jest

Nothing can ruin a budding or even established career faster at a conference than “letting your hair down” in a way that keeps your colleagues whispering, "Can you believe what he said?" Of course, using sexual innuendos or telling off-color jokes is a sure-fire way to attract attention, but not the kind that will boost your career. This faux pas can quickly send your prospects for advancement into a downward spiral. Never forget that the conferences — even for informal groups — is a business, not social, situation where most of the rules of business etiquette apply.

2. Not shaking hands with the opposite sex

Do you hesitate to offer to shake hands when you meet a member of the opposite sex? You might be surprised, but plenty of people are confused about this critical part of introductions at conferences. Blame it on 50+ year-old etiquette that instructed gentlemen to wait for ladies to first extend their hand, but that is about as passé as ladies dropping a hankie to start a conversation with a handsome passerby! Today, not offering to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex will peg men as sexist and women as unsure of themselves. Therefore, at today’s business conferences and everywhere else, for that matter—excluding for religious, cultural or physical reasons—both men or women should take the initiative to shake hands with everyone they meet.

3. Chatting for too long with your officemates

Shooting the breeze for a few minutes at conferences with your colleagues is all part of the fun, but if you stay ensconced in your closed circle of friends for too long, new coworkers, prospects or others will quickly cast you and your colleagues as cliquish, disinterested and not open to outsiders. Also, staying in one place too long, whether you are talking to someone or nibbling on the appetizers will make you appear shy, self-conscious and lacking confidence. It’s better to briefly chat with your buddies and then move to different areas of the room to introduce yourself to others you want to get to know better.

4. Asking more than three closed-ended questions in a row

“Do you work at our office?” “How long have you worked here?” “Who is your supervisor?” Yikes! You’re having a light chat—not a job interview or interrogation! Asking three or more closed ended questions in a row will certainly stifle any conversation, make others feel uncomfortable and definitely not win you any communication awards. Instead, show interest and a desire to find common interests by asking open-ended questions that encourage others to elaborate and reveal free information. Then based on what you hear that interests you, respond with follow-up questions and information of your own.

5. Talking too much or too little about yourself

“So enough about my job! Let me show you a picture of my kids (cats, car, etc.)!” Sure people love to talk about themselves, their pets, kids and grandchildren, but if you are the one doing all the talking, you could be boring the other guests to tears! On the other hand, if you are too tight-lipped, then people may see you as secretive, defensive or lacking interest and enthusiasm. The remedy here is to exchange information about various light subjects at about the same rate so that you both know what each other enjoys and likes to talk about.

6. Complaining or gossiping about colleagues or clients

You might be tempted and it may even be well-deserved, but never get involved in a gripe session about a colleague or client while attending a confernece. As obvious as this blunder is, people seem to do it all the time, especially after a few drinks. Even if you’re not the one making the crass remarks, if word gets back to the “offending person” you will still pay the price long after the party is over. If possible, politely excuse yourself from the conversation as quickly as possible. However, if you find yourself stuck with this group, then take the initiative and bring up something that moves the discussion to a more positive topic.

7. Talking about politics or controversial subjects

It never fails—there always seems to be at least one person at the event who likes to snag colleagues into heavy political “discussions” or offer longwinded lectures about his or her pet social issues. The trap often begins with the seemingly innocent words, “Don’t you think that …?” or “In my humble opinion ….” or “You people always …!” However, if you rebut with even a few words you’ll be in for an earful—and not the kind of conversation that most people at business conferences enjoy. Furthermore, discussing controversial topics in this situation often polarizes people who otherwise get along. The best thing to say when someone brings up a political or controversial subject at the office party is to say, “I never discuss politics or those topics at work.” Then it’s up to you to change the discussion to a less volatile topic.

Conferences Offer Golden Opportunities to Hone Your Small Talk Skills

Conferences are a great place to make small talk, establish rapport and build better relationships with your colleagues, acquaintances and clients. When you talk about light, upbeat subjects that lead to sharing common professional and personal interests, goals and experiences you’ll have plenty to talk about while boosting your career and honing your communication skills!

Don Gabor is a professional speaker and the author of eight books including the longtime best-seller How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends. His newest book, TURN SMALL TALK INTO BIG DEALS: Using 4 Key Conversation Styles to Customize Your Networking Approach, Build Relationships and Win More Clients was published by McGraw-Hill Professional in 2009.

Contact Don at 718-768-0824, or