If you’ve ever hoped for an excuse to dodge a business reception or a trade show cocktail party, you know that mastering small talk is a big ordeal for many people. It’s estimated that about one-third of the population are true introverts, another third out-and-out extroverts and the remainder combine the characteristics of both groups to various degrees. Although it’s true that technology allows us to do more remotely without direct interface, personal interactions continue to be the best way to create common bonds and foster business relationships.

If making small talk makes you uncomfortable, here are some techniques and strategies that might help.

  • Recognize that you are not alone. In any social/business gathering, there are probably more people who feel inadequate when it comes to conversational skills than there are those who have no trepidation.
  • Before you get to the event/social function, think about some simple conversation starters, for example: “Isn’t this a great location for a meeting?” or “Try the hors d-oeuvres, they’re delicious.” Then give your name (and business affiliation if appropriate), and say briefly why you’re attending the event, for example: “Hi, I’m John Doe. I’m new to this business association and wanted to hear…”
  • Small talk is just that. Keep things light, and if you have an agenda, don’t rush right to it. Test the waters first. Talk about some simple, safe topics, such as the location of the event or the record attendance at the trade show.
  • Most people love talking about themselves or sharing their knowledge or opinions. If you ask open-ended questions, such as, “What do you think of the symposium topics this year?” or “I was told the first speaker is not to be missed. What do you think?” you’ll get answers that naturally segue into other conversational topics.
  • Be a good listener. Do more active listening than talking. That way you can cue off your conversational partner’s remarks to ask relevant questions.
  • Don’t deliver a monologue. If you have a favorite activity, topic or sport, don’t inundate your fellow attendees with too much detail. Instead, encourage your new contacts to chat about their experiences and expertise.
  • Your conversational mode should be the same whether you are addressing a man or a woman. Don’t assume a woman executive wants to talk about different topics than her male counterpart, or that men always want to talk about sports and golf. Similarly, don’t assume people share your politics, religion or sense of humor.
  • Avoid jokes, personal information, anecdotes or any other information that requires you to make assumptions about people you’ve just met. Keep it positive and avoid oversharing; no one wants to hear all about your kid’s soccer team or a recent divorce.
  • Circulate. Don’t stick like a limpet to the first person you encounter. When there is a lull in the conversation and it feels right to move on, have a few simple wrap-up comments in your back pocket. “Well, I enjoyed meeting you. Thanks for telling me about…” or “Here’s my business card. If I can be of service to you, give me a call.

Shift the focus to your new contact, and allow him or her to do most of the talking. People who say the least are often considered the best and smartest conversationalists in the room.