“In a single week, we may meet more people than our medieval ancestors did in their entire lives. Yet in contemporary American culture, we have little or no training for all this interaction.” So, how do you avoid feeling like an awkward teenager at a middle school dance when it comes to striking up a conversation? The simple answer, I discovered in a class on the art of conversation, is intention (and a little preparation).

Small talk is not your thing, you say. Is this a skill you really need to develop? Yes. According to CareerBuilder.com: “A study at the Stanford University School of Business tracked a group of MBAs 10 years after they graduated. The result? Grade point averages had no bearing on their success — but their ability to converse with others did.”

The good news is you don’t need to be a virtuoso conversationalist or even an extrovert to strike up a conversation with people you don’t know. So, what do you need to know?

3 Things to Know Before Talking with a Stranger

1. Know your intent. Have a purpose for every social event you attend. Ask yourself: Why I am here? What do I need to accomplish before I leave? For example, at a conference your goal may be to connect with three people and exchange business cards. With a clear goal in mind you have a focus and an incentive to avoid interactions that aren’t moving you towards your goal.  Once you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, you’re free to leave or revisit the buffet.

2. Know yourself. Prepare your “elevator speech” for both personal and professional encounters. An elevator speech imagines you have less than a minute to make an impression and convey something meaningful about yourself to someone. (See our previous post How to Discover Your DNA for ways to understand what makes you unique.)

Who are you and what do you do? Be able to say what you do, what you’re working on, or what your interests are SIMPLY and in a couple of different ways. For example, have both a precise explanation for someone who understands your area and a generalized explanation for everyone else. Avoid using jargon unless you’re at an event where everyone speaks the same jargon. (Even then, you will be a refreshing break from your colleagues if you present yourself using simple clear language.)

As difficult as it may seem, you can boil down your elevator speech into a sentence or two. (You get extra credit if you make your message vivid and memorable.) It doesn’t have to be precise.  For example, I was struggling with describing what I do and another person next to me piped up, “You make libraries easier to use.”  That works, and if someone is really interested, I can go into more detail. This approach invites a dialog and makes you look confident — that is, you appear to have a clear grasp of what you do and care about.

Elevator Speech in Action

Last year Leslie and I attended a townhall meeting introducing incoming University of California President Mark Yudof to staff. Leslie and I prepared ourselves to briefly describe the strategic goals of our group. Sure enough, the opportunity struck when President Yudof introduced himself to us, shook our hands, and asked what we did. Without missing a beat, we were able to tell him our group’s three strategic goals and converse briefly with him about how we were tackling those goals. Our actual goals were less important than the fact that we had concrete goals that were easy to understand and we were actively pursuing them. The key message was we know what we’re doing, why it matters, and we’re actively doing it.

3. Know how to start (and end) a conversation. Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project blog has a terrific post on getting a conversation going that includes bonus tips on how to avoid being boring. Here are her first three tips (see below for a link to her full post):

  • Comment on a topic common to both of you at the moment: the food, the room, the occasion, the weather. “How do you know our host?” “What brings you to this event?” But keep it on the positive side! Unless you can be hilariously funny, the first time you come in contact with a person isn’t a good time to complain.
  • Comment on a topic of general interest. A friend scans Google News right before he goes anywhere where he needs to make small talk, so he can say, “Did you hear that Justice Souter is stepping down from the bench?” or whatever might be happening.
  • Ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word. “What’s keeping you busy these days?” This is a good question if you’re talking to a person who doesn’t have an office job. It’s also helpful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby) — preferable to the inevitable question (well, inevitable at least in New York City): “What do you do?”

It can be trickier to remove yourself from a conversation that’s gone sour. Here are some tips:

  • Change the subject.
  • Stop asking questions or commenting on what the other person has to say.
  • End the conversation abruptly, but politely, by asking for a card or setting up your next appointment if you’re discussing business.
  • Set up a signal with friends in advance to pull you away.

First Impressions Matter

People will make a judgment about you within a few seconds. Giving the other person your full attention and having a pleasant demeanor will go a long way towards a positive encounter. Here’s an example of how body language matters.  This advice comes from a past Vice President at University of California when she spoke to graduates of the career development program: Always exit an elevator with your head held high and a calm expression. Why? As a leader, it conveys that everything is okay. Conversely, imagine the impression you would get if your director entered your office with their head down and a worried look on their face.

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” — Dorothy Nevill

Now, It’s Your Turn

Read one of these brief articles and pick a few tips to try at a work or personal social event.

Seven Tips for Making Good Conversation with a Stranger from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project blog. Includes tips for knowing if you’re boring someone and tips to avoid being a bore (which are pretty funny!)

12 Tips for Making Small Talk from CareerBuilder.com. Includes tips on exit lines.

Read more posts from Your Life@Work.