The quick and easy guide to corporate small talk

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Why is it that some of the most confident and charming work colleagues suddenly declare themselves “clueless” when it comes to formal work events? There’s no manual to it, granted, but there’s no magic trick behind an enjoyable and successful evening of work socializing—or as it is unfortunately known, “networking.” With the caveat that people, like workplaces, aren’t puzzles, and that there’s no one solution to better socializing—here are some tips to help you shine through with your natural grace.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Get ready, because here you come: it may seem a bit cheesy, but the first thing to do is remind yourself that you’re absolutely capable of holding a good conversation. It’s fairly basic motivational psychology, but it’s a lesson worth remembering.

The second thing to prepare is an elaborate dossier of every guest in attendance. Kidding. But it is worth keeping in mind who you’ll be meeting with. If it’s a seated dinner, ask a coworker about your future tablemates, or do a quick Google on your phone. If it’s a keynote with drinks to follow, look into the speaker’s interests and think about what you’d like to know.

Think and ask broadly

Something to keep in mind is that many of your most intimidating higher-ups earned their keep by explaining themselves—they’re in the business of selling and detailing their work. So, let them do it again. Ask open-ended questions (not necessarily about work) that give them plenty of room for talking. There’s no answer more boring than “Yes” or “No,” so try to avoid questions that lead to them.

Champagne Bubbles (Photo) – Gold” by Paperless Post

Make them do the work

How much should you be talking, anyway? Some, of course—you want people to know that you’re engaged and bright. Like your parents probably told you: you’ve got two ears and one mouth. Let your interlocutors do most of the talking—you’ll walk away enlightened, they’ll walk away feeling like they just did a great job.

What don’t you say?

Okay, aside from the famous pillars of “politics, money, and religion” (which may be difficult to avoid if you work in politics, banking, or a faith-based organization), what’s off-limits? We tend to avoid going too personal: that sounds obvious, but we live in an increasingly public world. Your older peers may not live in the same social media demimonde, so keep that in mind. One thing you might not realize is part of that: self-deprecation. Don’t take this as license to open conversations with a list of your achievements, but leave any humorous retelling of your foibles to friends—think of this as your opportunity to put your personality in more structured attire, too.

Planning your own professional event? Take a look at invitations for formal receptions, business events, and launches.