Schmoozing, the art of making conversation, is a big part of doing business. So why are some people so bad at it? And how can wallflowers become great schmoozers?
There’s no doubt that great conversationalists are usually born with the gift of the gab, but there’s a lot you can learn from great talkers.
Start with a smile. Learning how to look at someone warmly is the most important part of schmoozing. We’re not talking about fake smiles, either. It’s about letting warmth and happiness radiate from you so that people naturally just want to bask in your glow. You can learn to smile warmly at will.
When I had my first serious job interviews, I trained myself to react to pressure by smiling. I’d imagine myself feeling nervous in front of an interviewer and I forced myself to smile broadly and warmly. By the time I got to the interviews, sure enough, it worked. The more nervous I got, the bigger my smile got, and by smiling I relaxed. Many of the interviewers commented on how easy-going and friendly I seemed. If only they knew why!
Schmoozing is about learning who people really are. Ultimately you’re trying to learn about the person behind the face, name and job title. That’s how you build a connection with a person.
So how do you do it? First, don’t let common myths about schmoozing stop you from being a great conversationalist.
- You need a great opening. The only opening you ever need is “hi!” with a big smile. Your attitude says much more to a stranger than the specific words.
- You have to remember everyone’s name. Some of the best conversationalists I know are lousy at remembering names. It’s good to keep track of people, but more important is the way you treat them. A warm smile and “hey, I can’t believe I’ve forgotten your name!” can be just fine. More important than their name is who they are.
- I have nothing to say.This might be true. If you’re not a great schmoozer, you probably don’t know what to say. The best idea is to learn more about the people you’re talking with. So prepare a list of things that you should seek to find out, such as:
- Name – Obviously.
- Job – What do they do? Do they love or hate their job? What would they rather be doing?
- Hobbies – Eg. “Harry, I imagine you don’t get a lot of time away from your law practice, but what do you do to relax?”
- Opinions – What systems or languages does the programmer like? How does the investor feel about technical analysis versus value investing? What does the Yoga instructor think of Pilates or the Alexander Method?
- Advice – Often people love to give advice related to their area of expertise.
- Never discuss politics or religion. Simply wrong. You won’t get people talking if you stick to the weather, and you won’t learn who they are until they reveal what they care about.
- Let them do all the talking. It depends. The key is being truly interested in the people around you and in what they say. One on one, you can often learn a lot by just listening. At the same time, by talking and opening up to the other person, you make them more comfortable opening up to you. And at larger gatherings, the key is to connect with what people are saying. Don’t compete for air time. The best way to enter the conversation is to reference what someone else has said, since by recognizing their contribution to the conversation you make them interested in what you have to say and demonstrate that you’re not just barging in.
- Don’t prepare, just act naturally. That works for experienced schmoozers whose lifetime of schmoozing serves as preparation, but if schmoozing came naturally you wouldn’t need this list, right? You give yourself an advantage if you prepare for situations in advance. Find out who’s coming to a party or event and Google them or ask around. Going to a gardening conference? Pick up a horticultural magazine. Prepare a list of people you’d like to meet and things you’d like to ask them.
How do I break into a group of people talking?
Sometimes it can work to simply stand or sit down beside the others and start listening. However I’ve found it even more effective to create segues. You’re walking by a group and overhear something. “Hey, did you just say that Windows Vista had a better interface than MacOS X?” “Did you say you’d seen the new Tom Hanks movie? Is it good?” As I’ve said before, more important than the words is the way you say them. If your smile is good enough, you can use just about any segue, even a fake one:
You: “Hey, did you just say you’d installed Linux on your kid’s computer?”
Guy: “Uh, no…”
You: “Oh really? I could have sworn I heard ‘Linux’!”
Guy: “Haha, actually I said I was reading limericks to my daughter before bedtime.”
You: “That’s great that you’re reading to your daughter. They say that reading to your children greatly increases their interest in reading later on. Have you ever read her The Giving Tree?”
Guy: “Yeah, that’s a great one!”
You can try your segue, and see how the group reacts. If you seem to have interrupted a private conversation, just move on and harass someone else at the party. Eventually you’ll find someone desperate enough to talk to you.
Speaking of which, that’s the other most important thing. Along with your non-fake smile, try to take it easy and laugh a lot. Either people will like talking to you because you’re fun, or at least you’ll be able to laugh at their lack of interest in what you have to say. (Cretins.)