Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders Network

Connecting emerging arts managers with skill-building and leadership development resources.

The Art of Small Talk, or How to Begin Networking

It never fails. After almost any public event that I attend with my spouse, he always says, “You’re so good at talking with strangers. I wish I could do that, but I can’t.” And every time I tell him a secret that I’m about to share with you all: I wasn’t born with a special talent to talk with strangers. I have worked—and worked extremely hard—at acquiring this skill, the “art of small talk.”

It’s hard for me to recall at what point in my life it became clear that the art of small talk was a skill I thought worthy of possessing. Perhaps it started as early as age 10 when I read a book (are you ready for a really shameful confession?) entitled How to be Popular with Boys that I found at a garage sale. This book—clearly from the non-women’s lib side of the 1970s—makes me now cringe. It did not help me to be as popular as the title proclaimed, but I do remember taking away a few key points that emphasized making eye contact and asking people questions about themselves. Or perhaps my investment in learning small talk occurred in college when I was a theatre major, and it was hammered into our brains that theatre is largely “who you know.” And the only way you get to know someone was by talking with them (and yes, this was before the rise of online messaging where people were still required to talk face to face.) Or perhaps it came from somewhere else entirely.

Wherever it stemmed from, it has been something that I have worked tirelessly on because I firmly believe that small talk is the beginning of networking. It doesn’t always work the greatest. I can recall plenty of times I have left a function going, “Why did I ask that? Why didn’t I ask them about this?” and replaying the scene over and over in my mind. But when it does work right, small talk leads to big ideas.

So while I am not the expert, I would like to humbly offer up what I have learned about the art of small talk and how you, too, can practice it.

  1. Know your audience: If you have the time, do a little research on the function you are attending, who is hosting it, and the people who will likely be there. But even if you don’t, get to know your audience from the moment you enter the room. In this case, judge a book by its cover.
  2. Make a good first impression: as you are judging other books’ covers, so others are judging yours. Walk tall, look people in the eye, and a firm (but not death-grip) handshake exudes confidence, even when you feel as nervous as a clam (and oh, how many times I have faked confidence!).
  3. Ask questions and find points of connection: People like to talk about themselves. 99% of the time, this is true. So ask questions and start simple. My favorites include: Where do you work? What do you do in your job? Are you from the area? How did you get into your current position? Have you been here before? Etc. etc. etc.
  4. Break down assumptions: Remember when I said “judge a book by its cover?”  Once the ice has been broken through conversation, then try to actively break down the assumptions you have made and others have made of you because everyone is so much more than their surface appearance. For instance, because I work for a classical dance company and therefore dress more conservatively on a day to day basis, people may assume that I like to shop at the Banana Republic (hate both things—shopping and the Banana Republic) or that I am uptight and straight-laced.  I like to try and bring up in conversation at some point that I have 2 tattoos and used to play the tuba. People never seem to expect either of those things.
  5. Read body language: perhaps I have an advantage here being a theatre major, but it’s really important to learn how to read people’s body language. I’m not talking as in-depth as Lie to Me tactics, but watch and observe. How does the person react when you are talking? Is the person nervously fidgeting and possibly more afraid of this situation than you are? Is the person actively engaged with listening to you, or are there eyes darting elsewhere? How does the person act when they are talking? Do they respond better to some questions than to others? What are they telling you about their comfort level in space (are they constantly shifting away from you if you inadvertently step closer to hear them better?) and with the content of the conversation? I am much more willing than others to talk about things other than work, but some people are very much focused at networking events on “talking shop.” So based on the feedback you are getting from their body language, re-adjust how you are interacting to help put the other person at ease and hope the conversation grows.
  6. And of course, to help facilitate this all even further, go to events that serve alcohol. Everyone has an easier time talking with a wine glass/pint of beer/cocktail in their hand!

What other advice can you give about how to begin and facilitate small talk at networking events?

Alyssa Herzog Melby is the Director of Education and Community Engagement at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre among many other things, including mom, wife, friend, gardener, cook, artist, cloth-diaper enthusiast, sewer, drinker of homemade brews, reader of great books, and, as aforementioned, a proud former tuba player. All opinions expressed herein are hers alone and not those of PBT.


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