Have you ever struggled to keep a conversation moving?
A postdoctoral student I met after delivering a networking skills seminar shared this story with me:
She had the opportunity to meet one of her role models, a world-renowned scientist. She eagerly introduced herself , but then the conversation quickly died.
The postdoc student explained that she had shaken hands with the scientist and then launched into an introduction she had practiced for this occasion. Since she had done her homework and researched the VIP’s background—with great enthusiasm and almost all within one breath—she explained several connections they had in common. She spoke quickly of previous universities and areas of interest shared.
Of course, it was a lot to take in all at once. The scientist politely smiled and said, “Wow…that’s great.” An uncomfortable silence followed, and then the scientist excused himself for a drink of water.
What happened here?
My first piece of advice was to not be too hard on herself. Haven’t we all found ourselves in a situation like this at least once? I know I have. The ability to move beyond the handshake and keep the conversation going can be an especially difficult skill.
I shared these five tips with her:
Tip #1: Don’t Blurt Out Everything at Once
Move slowly from one ring of the “interpersonal hula hoop” to the next. Your first goal is simply to connect on one of the outer rings—the environment or your role. For example, you might ask, “What’s the most interesting talk you’ve heard today?”
You simply want your hula hoops to touch, not overlap. As the conversation advances, you can move to deeper layers —your goals, culture, values, beliefs, and emotions.
Blurting out all of the possible connections between them was too much, too soon. It also put the focus on the postdoc student, when it should have been on the scientist. Perhaps a better way to begin the conversation was to focus on just one commonality and then ask a related question .
Tip #2: Ask for Stories, Not Answers
Ask easy, open-ended, icebreaker type questions. Don’t ask a question that only requires a bland “yes” or “no” answer. This will shut down the conversation before it even starts.
The idea is to ask for something that can be responded to in the form of a story . Your goal is to make the conversation process as easy as possible for your partner.
Try something like, “What’s been the best part of your visit to our campus so far?” or “I really enjoyed your talk. Is public speaking something that comes naturally to you?” Notice that the last question combines two interpersonal techniques—giving a genuine compliment and asking for a personal story.
Tip #3: Read the Situation
Once you’ve broken the ice, you can head toward what you have in common. Keep in mind though—you are peeling away the layers.
Take your cues from your conversation partner. Do they seem comfortable with the conversation and sharing more deeply in the “interpersonal hula hoop?” If so, then go for a deeper level question. If not, keep it slow and steady. Continue to use questions, not statements, to keep the stories flowing.
For example, “I’m a postdoc here at Penn, studying viral reprogramming, and of course I’ve read your work on X. I’m wondering, what do you think about Y (something related to X)?” or “I studied in Canada, too. What do you miss most about the North?”
Tip #4: Remember the Other Person May Also Be Uncomfortable
Again, the idea is to ask a question to give the person something to respond to. Remember: Networking situations may be awkward for them too.
By asking an open-ended question, you are helping them take the next step in joining the conversation. When you overwhelm someone with information, you probably won’t get much more than a “Wow…that’s great,” before they try to get away.
Tip #5: Welcome Opportunities to Practice Your Conversational Skills
Social functions at a university, faculty talks, and guest speaker visits are all good places to practice your conversational skills .
Also, make small talk with every person you meet—the clerk at the bookstore, the person in the bank line, people you sit next to at seminars. Force yourself to practice this skill.
Knowing the best ways to introduce yourself is an important first step. But the ability to keep the conversation going is what successful networking is all about. It takes courage and skill to turn small talk into a meaningful conversation , but it’s well worth the effort.
Follow these five steps and you’re certain to avoid those uncomfortable, awkward silences.