Small Talk at Conferences: How to Survive It

by Fallon Bleich, Head Editor, INALJ Arkansas

Small Talk at Conferences: How to Survive It

fallon.bleichI have major social anxiety and therefore going to ALA conferences can be a huge chore for me. It’s not that I don’t love seeing all my fellow librarians and learning awesome new things, it’s that I have to face the dragon known as small talk. Nobody likes to do it, it can be incredibly awkward, but I swear that some of the most important connections I’ve made have come from small talk at conferences. So, for all of you socially anxious, anti-social, just plain awkward folk like myself out there, I’m going to teach you how to use small talk to your advantage.

First off, don’t try and force it. It’s already kind of awkward anyway, and forcing it will just make you feel worse. Avoid the normal things you would avoid, such as politics, religion, etc. And while we’re at it, don’t use the old standby and try and use the weather as a topic of choice. That conversation goes nowhere and doesn’t really help you accomplish anything. Instead, take a look at their name badge and ask them about what they do at their library/university/wherever. If you want to start with a simpler topic, then just ask them where they are from and what they do. Or ask them if they’d gone to any great sessions earlier. Something to start a conversation without being stereotypical; this will get you started and allow for the conversation to flow more smoothly.

Now, you’ve opened the door! So, what’s next? Keep the conversation going and be engaged with the person. This means engaged and active listening; don’t stay in your head the entire time, otherwise you’ll miss out on some great conversation. And try and contribute to the conversation besides “uh-huh” “yeah” and “sure”. By doing this, you’ll find out information about this person and be able to share with them also.

Now, the hard part is getting something useful out of small talk. How do you accomplish this? A lot of practice and a decent ability to talk about yourself without coming off as ego-centric. Make sure that any information you slip into the conversation about yourself is organically inserted. Nothing makes small talk award faster than abrupt transitions and random information that has nothing to do with anything! For instance, if you start talking to someone about their job and find out that they do something that you would love to do, you can say “Oh! I am so interested in what you do; as someone who is job hunting, can you tell me how you came to that job field?” or “I would love to do what you do! I’m currently looking into getting into that field myself,” which lends itself to a natural transition of them asking you how the job hunt is going, etc. Finally, don’t be afraid to let conversations die naturally. It’s ok if you’re not great at small talk in the beginning. Just keep striking up conversations with different folks and eventually you will find that it becomes a smoother process for you. Once that happens, the information will start flowing naturally.

Why bother with all of this? Like I said before, some of the most important information that I’ve gotten from conferences has happened during small talk moments. It’s an important part of the networking thing, and it’s led to some inside information both on the job hunt front and for conference purposes.

I’ve had everything from job hunting advice—once I even did a mock interview while waiting in line to get my book signed—to when an author is going to appear for a signing next. This year, I even managed to small talk with a vendor while waiting to check in to my hotel and ended up getting invited to an event I hadn’t previously been invited to! The beauty of small talk is that while it doesn’t always lead somewhere, the ability to do it well can lead to so much more than you would think. Yes, it is something that can make a socially anxious person’s skin crawl, but the more you do it, the less it sucks the next time!