I had dreamed of the day I’d finally learn the secret to becoming the life of the party. I’d make fast friends with roomfuls of people – all thanks to my newfound wit and charm.
Classic rookie mindset. There is no magic bullet.
There are, however, tried and true frameworks that can be mastered with thoughtful practice over time. Like many social rituals, small talk tends to follow patterns – and this is good. It puts people at ease.
It’s also good because it means you can plan ahead.
In my last post I covered how to think about small talk, now I’m going outline how you can prepare for it.
Since small talk is key to making a good first impression, this post focuses on meeting someone for the first time, say at an event. Small talk can be very strategic for us in this setting.
For me, pre-event preparation means making sure the following three items are in my toolbox:
- Thoughts/feelings on shared reality
- Uncommon answers to common questions
- The “pivot question” technique
Let’s take a closer look at each one:
1. Thoughts/feelings on shared reality
Most conversations between strangers start with a simple statement about their shared reality. It’s not deep, but it gets things off to a comfortable start.
Say you have an evening event. When building your toolbox beforehand, be prepared to comment on at least one of the following:
- The location
- The program
- The food
- The weather (if you’re desperate)
Don’t overthink it. Here are some examples:
“[Venue] sure is a great spot.”
“[Speaker’s name] sure is funny.”
You can also prepare to go one level deeper. Think ahead for how you will expand upon the item above by adding something personal.
Again, keep it simple, here’s an example:
“[Venue] sure is a great spot. Every time I come here I never want to leave.”
“[Speaker’s name] sure is funny. I jump on any chance I can get to hear her speak.”
2. Uncommon Answers to Common Questions
As you’re getting ready to mix and mingle at your next event, know that your prospect will ask nearly everyone he meets some version of the questions below. In many cases he will receive similar answers, most of which he will forget. And most of the time he’ll also forget the person’s name.
“What do you do at [organization]? What’s your role with [organization]?
I used to hate this one! Is it best to be upfront about your fundraising role, or keep it vague? How do you talk about what you do without scaring new prospects away?
Well, I’ve tested what feels like a million different responses and have developed two general rules of thumb: 1) A straightforward, confident answer is always best, although you don’t necessarily need to use the words “fundraiser” or “fundraising,” and 2) use this question as an opportunity to highlight a key project, or the overall importance of your organization’s work.
Since I work at a school and we’re building a new academic building, lately my response to this question has been something along the lines of:
“I’m a member of the development and alumni relations team. Our biggest project right now is wrapping up the fundraising for our new building. It’s going to be spectacular and will absolutely transform the student experience at [school name].”
“What’s your background? How’d you get into this line of work?”
If you’re like me, you stumbled and bumbled your way into non-profit fundraising. Not inspiring.
Make sure you have a personal “elevator pitch” you can deliver in under 60 seconds. Even shorter is better. This is your chance to be memorable. How are you going to connect your past to the present in a way that communicates your humanity and your enthusiasm? Remember, your prospect will meet a lot of people, how is it he’s going to remember you?
“So, how’s it going? How are things? What’s new?”
This question is actually a great opportunity. View it as an invitation to really give your prospects something he can take back with him. Something meaty. What’s your organizations #1 news item right now?
Here are some ideas: new executive, new facility, big press hit, a recent impact story.
Be prepared to share it, along with a sentence or two about why you’re excited about it. The facts are important, but in the context of small talk, adding some “feeling” words (i.e. “I love,” “I can’t wait for,” “I’m always amazed when”, etc.) will further humanize you and your organization, help you connect, and make your news item even more memorable.
3. The “pivot question” technique
This technique is your bridge between a first conversation with your prospect and a follow-up meeting.
What’s your “in” with the prospect? Does she have expertise or strong interest in a particular area?
Come up with a question that will start a conversation your prospect will want to continue.
Tapping into expertise is one of my favorite approaches, probably because I think it’s easiest. Most people like feeling like an expert and are happy to give advice to eager, upbeat people.
“I understand you work in [area of expertise]. We’ve been thinking a lot about [relevant challenge] and are trying to determine the best way forward. Our current plan is [brief description of plan]. Do you think that approach makes sense?
And, again, don’t overthink it. Your prospect isn’t going to solve your problem on the spot – that’s not the point. You simply want to signal that you’re aware of her expertise. It will make her feel good to know she has something of value offer.
Now, what if her job isn’t relevant to your organization? Perhaps she’s a wealthy widow who spends most of her time volunteering or travelling. This is where you can focus on interests or passions.
“I understand you’re fairly involved with the _______ community here in [location].What do you think about [recent relevant news item]?”
In my next post I’ll get into how to use each of these conversational tools. The important thing for now is just to pack them in your toolbox.
Remember, much of the work is done before the conversation begins. Developing a toolbox full of good material is an important step in the preparation process. And good preparation will boost your confidence.
Now I want to hear from you! Leave a comment letting me know how you start conversations with new people.