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The Art of Good Conversation

For many people, one of the things they find most intimidating about networking is making conversation with others. The idea of having to talk to strangers, ask and answer questions and find a way to connect can be a bit overwhelming.

An engaging and lively conversation can be the difference in whether an encounter turns into a new business relationship or stays a one-time meeting. Here are five ways to ensure that during a conversation you make the impression you want and gather the information you need:

1) Have your personal tag line ready: Your personal tag line is how you introduce yourself. It’s important that your tag line is clear, compelling and concise as it is your only chance to make a strong first impression. The key is to really think about the answer to the dreaded question “So, what you do?” and compose an answer that is relevant yet original. Avoid industry jargon or long, overly technical explanations as you will lose people’s attention. Focus on the value you bring – not the job title and company printed on your business card.

Once you have a tag line, you must rehearse it to the point that it flows naturally. Practice it with your spouse, friends or co-workers and get their feedback. Your goal is to deliver relevant information while capturing the interest of a new contact – it is the first step in starting a great conversation.

2) Ask open-ended questions: When in a conversation, your goal should be to draw the other person out, and to learn about them, their work and their life. Try to ask interesting – even provocative – questions that they haven’t already been asked ten times during the event. Questions can be professional or personal as long as they are relevant and appropriate; business connections are often made when you find out your kids are the same age, or you went to the same college. It can be a challenge to come up with unique, engaging questions when you’re actually in the middle of a conversation, so it’s best to have a list of five or so “stock” questions that you have memorized.

Here are a few sample questions to consider for your conversation arsenal:

• “How is your company dealing with the downturn in the economy?”
• “What do you like best about your profession/job?”
• “If you were going to totally switch careers, what would you do?”
• “How long have you lived in (your city)?”
• “Do you have any fun plans for the summer?”

3) Pay attention: Remember that conversation involves talking and listening. The truth is, many people don’t really pay attention when engaging in conversation. They go on automatic pilot when talking about themselves and their business, and their mind wanders when the other person is talking. If you pay close attention, you will likely find common ground, and can then focus the conversation on a topic you are both interested in. THIS is where a true connection is made.

It is also important to watch their body language during your discussion. You’ll be able to tell if they are interested in (or are bored by) the subject and if they want to continue to chat simply by how they look. Watch your own body language as well – you need to look as though the interaction is your priority. Be sure to maintain eye contact, don’t fidget, and smile and nod at appropriate moments.

4) Stay positive: Especially in today’s media environment of constant bad news, it can be very refreshing to interact with someone who is positive. This is a chance for you to make a terrific impression by being upbeat, regardless of your personal or professional situation. By bringing people up, instead of down, you are more likely to have longer, more meaningful conversations.

5) Know when to say when: Occasional awkward pauses will certainly occur in your conversations. The key to success is knowing how to handle these pauses, by taking control of the situation. If you have exhausted a particular topic either bring up a new subject with a good question, or use the opportunity to wrap up the encounter and move on. You can end a conversation by simply saying “It was so nice talking to you,” and offering your business card and asking for theirs.

By utilizing these strategies, you’ll find making conversation at future networking events to be much more comfortable – and more effective for building relationships.

Written originally for by Marny Lifshen.