We have all been at that conference or luncheon table. The one you where you are pretty sure you are the only one who doesn’t know everyone else, but are expected to mingle with the other professionals. After the initial pleasantries, everyone experiences that awkward silence and wonders to themselves “what am I supposed to say to these people I don’t even know?”
I have said before that it is important to establish great rapport. Part of that means learning to overcome that silence that arises from going solo to a conference or event.
Here are a few recommendations to help you break that awkward silence:
Find a friend.
It is always helpful to have someone else with you to break the ice with and that you can rely on to revive a dying conversation. If you did not attend the event with a friend, make it a point to make a friend at the event, if at all possible. (And if “friend” is too strong of a word for you, consider finding an “ally” — someone you chatted with out in the hallway, for example).
Focus and listen to what is being said in your conversation circle. Learn who each person is, and what it is they are talking about. We rely on individuals to start conversations and to keep them moving. If no one else is doing it (and if appropriate), consider starting the conversation with the person yourself. Avoid glancing around at other groups as it signals to others that you would “rather” be conversing with someone else. Also, avoid the creepy hovering behind someone while they’re talking to find an opening to interject.
Connect first; cards later.
Your first move should not be to exchange business cards. It should be an effort to get to know the person you are speaking to. Talk to them about the event you are attending (What brings you here?), about them personally (Are you from this area?), or about their work (What practice area do you focus on?). It is important of course, to have cards on hand, but connect with them as a human being before as a “contact.”
Avoid negative topics.
The struggle is real—but the conversation should not be about them! It may be tempting to discuss topics like having to study for the bar or how hard it is to find a job, but you should avoid these topics when speaking with a practicing attorney. Rather than implant in them a negative association with you (Remember that person who couldn’t land a job), find positive (or at least, neutral) topics to discuss. If you really are studying for something, consider bringing up recent events or cases and how it relates to what you’ve been studying (though you should try to keep it in the realm of the attorney’s practice area). If negative topics arise, try to redirect the conversation.
I encourage you to get out there, overcome that awkward silence, and make those connections!