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The Art of Making Small Talk to Improve Networking Success

For some people the prospect of networking is akin to going to the dentist. The prospect of going to networking events or contacting “the right people” causes as much anxiety as scheduling a root canal. For those brave enough to reach out via email or through social media, the next step is bewildering. What will I say? How can I avoid feeling and sounding awkward? The answer is small talk.

While, small talk is something that comes easily and naturally to some people, it’s not something that everyone can do without a little practice. When it comes to networking for a career transition, small talk can often be the key to starting conversations and setting the stage for successfully networking your way to a new job.

If you’d rather go to the dentist than network, here are a few tips to make the experience less painful. Who knows, you might actually start to enjoy yourself.

Building relationships

Before I launch into tips on how to make small talk work for you, I wanted to take a moment to reframe the concept of networking. Instead of thinking of it as something outside your sphere of normal social interaction, think of networking as an extension of what you’re already doing. Networking is just building relationships.

When you think about starting a conversation with industry peers or other people in your growing network, think about the types of things you might say to a casual acquaintance, or someone you haven’t seen in years. Be interested in the person you’re talking to and get to know them. There’s no magic formula to networking. It’s just making connections with people with whom you share some common knowledge and who work in your industry, or an industry you’re interested in joining.

Building relationships often starts with a little small talk. Don’t launch into a diatribe about yourself, your career aspirations, and the things you want from another person. Instead, engage your contacts in a little small talk.

Start small talk by asking questions

Most people enjoy talking about what they are doing and things they are interested in. Engage your contacts by asking a few questions. Listen to their answers and ask follow-up questions to show you’re listening and genuinely interested in what they have to say.

Asking questions to start a conversation satisfies two goals. One, it takes the onus off of you to think of what to say, instead you can spend your time actively listening. Two, it immediately engages your contact to break the ice and get the conversation flowing.

After asking someone about how they landed on their career track, you might ask a follow-up question related to how they learned about the industry, a project they’ve worked on that they really enjoyed, or what they see as the next step in their career. 

Initiate conversation

Initiating conversation is a terrifying concept to many people. When you’re at a networking event or industry conference and you see someone across the room, you know if would be beneficial to introduce yourself and get to know them. Making the first move to initiate conversation doesn’t have to be so terrifying. Start simple. Even if the conversation doesn’t go far, you will have made a connection that you can revisit at another time.

Believe it or not, just walking up to someone at a networking event and introducing yourself or asking to join them at their table can be effective conversation starters. The line at the buffet table is also a good place to strike up a conversation. Comment on the food and see if you can segue that into a longer conversation. If you can’t at that moment. Greet that person when you see them again and ask them how they enjoyed the event.

Keep the conversation flowing

Now and then you’ll find that a conversation wanes. This is prime opportunity to change the subject and where the art of conversation comes into play. Before attending a networking event or industry conference, think about what types of questions might be relevant for people attending the event.

At a networking event, you can ask someone what their goals were for the event or who an ideal introduction is for them. You might find commonalities in why you are there or who you want to meet. This is a good time to share your career goals and to discuss the things that you like best about your work.

If you’re meeting with a contact, redirect to a topic you haven’t covered yet. This is a good time to start asking questions again to take the pressure off you making keeping the conversation going. Some good questions to ask in one-on-one meetings include:

  • What do you enjoy most about working in (geographic area)?
  • What knowledge/experience do you think has best served you in the last year?
  • What challenges do you see for professionals in our industry?
  • How has automation changed your job in the last 2 years?

Discuss current events

Current events make for good conversation, but be sure to keep it light. For example, keep to topics such as the recent solar eclipse, summer vacation or holiday plans, new tech gadgets, and the weather — you get the idea. When current events are particularly controversial, it’s hard to keep them out of conversations. If the other person brings something up, try to steer clear of sharing an opinion. Simply acknowledge the event and agree that it’s a controversial topic or distressing event and move on to other less heavy conversations.

Light current events can work well as opening lines in emails, as well. For example, you might begin, “Hi Jane, did you get to see the solar eclipse? It was truly spectacular!” Don’t attempt to talk about anything political or potentially sensitive in nature. Your goal is conversation, not soapboxing about a topic you are passionate about.

Offer information

In the above examples, you might notice that none of the ideas make the conversation about you. That is purposeful. Creating connections means engaging others in conversation about topics of interest to them. Let them tell you about themselves and what they are passionate about.

However, you don’t want to leave the conversation without telling the other person something about you and leaving an impression with them about who you are. Be a part of the conversation by reflecting on a topic from your own perspective. Find places to agree with the person and relate your own experience that mirrors theirs. Feel free to talk a little about your career goals or perhaps something more personal. Just remember to keep your comments brief and relevant. Be eager to listen and learn. After all, gaining new knowledge is a large part of your networking goals.

At times, someone may approach you and ask a question. Avoid one word answers and try to create something to talk about. When someone asks you, “How are you today”, avoid replying with “Fine.” Give a little information to get the conversation going, such as, “I’m good. We are getting ready to move to into a new house. It’s only one town over, but it feels like it’s across the country with all the work involved.” Now you’ve given the other person something to respond to and you can follow up with questions about that person’s experiences. It’s really that simple.

Small talk can take practice. Try it out in other social situations, such as a party or casual social gathering. You might find you need to coach yourself a little to make sure you stay focused and energized during the conversation. Be aware of your energy level and your ability to make eye contact and stay interested.

And the biggest tip?

Smile! Let people know you appreciate their time and any suggestions they have for you in your career transition.

How do you use small talk in business and networking situations? Share your comments below, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

The post The Art of Making Small Talk to Improve Networking Success appeared first on RiseSmart.

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About Mildred Blankson

I am a Human Resource Professional with a Masters Degree in Human Resource Management. I have several years of experience in Human Resources and i hope this blog will be a great resource in helping you find the perfect job or candidate that you seek.

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How to Leverage Company Benefits to Recruit and Retain Top Talent

One-third of organizations have increased their overall benefit offerings in 2016, according to a research report compiled by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). As recruiting and retaining top talent continue to become increasingly difficult for employers, robust benefit packages play a key role. When salaries and perks (think: free lunch) are nearly equal from company to company, employees are likely to opt for the company that offers the best benefits and greatest opportunities.

Medical and financial benefits aside, employees are looking for lifestyle and career benefits. SHRM reported that the top reason employers increased benefits in 2016 was to remain competitive in the marketplace—and the three biggest focus areas for change were in the health (22%), wellness (24%), and professional and career development (16%) categories. Robust benefit packages that include career development, health and wellness, and flexible working options provide a platform for employers to stand out. Nearly one-third of employees look for external positions because they desire “overall better benefits,” second only to higher compensation.

The type of benefits you offer speaks volumes on how you treat and support employees, which always manifests by way of your external employer brand. It’s not enough to say “we have great benefits,” because “great benefits” are now table stakes. Companies have mastered the art of talking about perks, from catered lunches to team building activities. Failure to talk about the real support and development opportunities you offer to employees might translate to missed opportunities. So how can hiring managers and recruiters promote employee benefits to help with recruiting and retention?

#1: Kick “industry standard” out of your vocabulary

When recruiters and hiring managers list their company’s benefits and summarize with the catch-all phrase, we offer “industry standard” benefits, it’s not enough. When all else—compensation, vacation days, and perks—are even, offering a standard benefits package won’t help your company standout enough to secure commitment from a top employee. Even though it might be tempting to default to a quick response, it pays to provide more detail about the benefits your company offers, in length, during the interview process.

And even more importantly than providing a laundry list of benefits (but kudos to you for that list!), explain how these benefits fit in with core company values. For example, if you offer flexible work arrangements and flexible hours, explain that these arrangements support your company’s value of work-life balance. If you provide a gym membership or showers at work, talk about how it enhances company culture or creates opportunities for employees to get the exercise they desire in a convenient way.. When recruits begin to see how your benefits support their shared values and interests, they’ll see the benefits you offer are much greater than “industry standard.”

Employers hoping to keep a competitive edge are offering more than the “industry standard” at every stage of the employee journey, including at severance – according to a recent study by RiseSmart. If you’re on the cutting edge of severance offerings, use those benefits to differentiate your company form the competition.

#2: Talk about goals in the recruiting and interview process

Before an employee is even hired, find out what they’re looking for in their employer and what their short and long term goals are. Ask questions like, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” and “How are you hoping your employer will support you along your career journey?” Employees, many of whom are seeking opportunities for career development and continuing education, need to know you plan to invest in their individual career goals.

A Career Builder survey found that 45% of employees, regardless of generation, plan to stay with their employer for less than two years. During their tenure, they expect to benefit and grow with each new role and and at each new company. It’s important to convey to prospective employees that you invest in each individual employee, regardless for how long they plan to stay in the role for which they are being hired.

#3: Amplify the employee voice

Remind employees early on that they have a voice to share about company culture and employee benefits. Glassdoor, for example, recommends employers invite new hires to reflect on their first few months at the company. Whether this leads to internal feedback or a public review, it can assist efforts aimed at creating a positive employer brand.

L’Oréal recently launched a #LifeatLoreal hashtag to encourage employees to share photos of their experiences at work. The campaign all stemmed from the idea that people would trust their peers on social media when it came to L'Oréal being a great place to work. Employees posted a wide variety of pictures, including snapshots of various benefits and perks in action—such as flex days and catered lunches. Encourage employees to share the experiences they enjoy the most on the social channel of their choice.

#4: Keep employees engaged with benefits

On average, salary is only about 70% of an employee’s total compensation. When employees don’t take advantage of the benefits offered by the company, it’s equivalent to leaving 30% of the total compensation package on the table. Employers who keep employees engaged with benefits are more likely to see benefits manifest as part of the employer brand. An employee is highly unlikely to leave a Glassdoor review that mentions a positive benefit if she has never actually utilized the benefit.

Try hosting monthly or quarterly Q&A sessions to discuss available benefits. When you roll out a particularly hefty benefit, such as a new 401K offering, or an update to parental leave policy, give employees ample opportunity to ask questions. You could also share success stories from employees who have taken advantage of a particularly niche benefit, such as an hour of free lawyer services, to showcase how the benefit is used and encourage other employees to check it out.

#5: Benefits are the forgotten negotiation tool

If you are a hiring manager or recruiter engaging with a candidate, think beyond salary, or equity. Everything is negotiable, from vacation days to health insurance choices. Savvy employees, especially as the war for talent continues to heat up, will use benefits as negotiation tools—but don’t shy away from doing the same thing on the employer side. It’s often easier to offer more benefits than to secure additional salary for an employee.

Don’t be afraid to talk about your full complement of benefits, including your severance benefits. Prospective employees may feel more comfortable about joining a company that will take care of them, in the event of a downsizing or restructuring event. You may want to consider offering perks like outplacement and career transition services to employees who leave voluntarily as well as those who are involuntary subjects of a layoff. Knowing that you are invested in their career, even after they leave, will help you create a workforce of dedicated, engaged, and satisfied employees.

The world is small and everyone is connected. When you invest in employees, it leads to a positive employer brand. In the new Employee Relationship Economy, former employees will someday become vendors, customers, brand evangelists, recruiting references, or even boomerang employees. In a world where the employee/employer relationship is no longer finite, it’s important to convey your full support for employees’ career endeavors at every stage of their career journeys -- beginning early in the recruiting and interview process.

In every recruiting conversation, highlight your dedication to each employee’s career. When you frame up your organization’s benefits in context of how they fit in with the employee’s journey, it’s easy for the candidate to see how your company would support his journey. Communication about employee benefits can go a long way in the recruiting process—and will have a direct impact on your employer brand. If you offer much more than “industry standard,” you should be screaming it from the rooftops. Your current and prospective employees deserve to understand just how committed you are to their personal and professional journey.

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