There may be no place where small talk is more important than the World’s Longest Porch this week.
This year’s Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference at Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island will be my 15th. I’m once again honored to lead the Conference’s opening session, called “Mackinac 101” for first-time attendees. Spending three days amid the state’s CEOs, Executive Directors, top entrepreneurs and politicians can be intimidating for some. Success networking on the Hotel’s famous Porch, in between Conference sessions, poses a chit chat challenge even for the most outgoing attendees. It is the Super Bowl of Schmoozing.
For many it can be easy to fall into conversation traps and default into what have become Conference Cliches. It’s really too easy to look at a name tag and ask “How long have you been with (Company Name?” You then usually get a factual answer, but not an insightful one that leads to conversation. It’s tempting, when you don’t have anything else to say, to ask “Where are you staying?” But then you get a description of someone’s hotel room rather than a starting point to get to know them. And a conversation about the weather? That’s something you can do in line at the grocery store, rather than a marquee event that costs thousands of dollars to attend.
Instead, think about how to get to know someone you just met. If they’re not wearing a “first time attendee” ribbon, then ask how this Conference compares to others they have attended. The Conference features national keynote speakers, so ask what your fellow attendees thought of their remarks. Better yet, to get someone you would like to talk to to really start talking, ask a specific business question. Here’s a suggestion: If you’ve been paying attention, you know that all businesses have changed significantly in recent years, due to changes forced by the Great Recession and by advancing technology. So, to get from small talk to big talk, why not ask about the changes they are seeing in their business and how they’re addressing them? There’s really nothing businesspeople like more to talk about than their own business. That’s the start of a real conversation and it should naturally set the table to talk about your business too.
Other than meetings with people we know, we don’t get as much opportunity as we used to for talking face-to-face with people who are new to us. Conferences can be those rare chances. Before heading to The Porch or to any conference, think about what you can say and ask to start conversation that both parties will want to keep going even after the closing session.