Back to Basics: The Art of Conversation

Written by Patrick Donlin



In a digital age, social and business networking sites, job boards, tweeting, blogging etc., provide untold volumes of information that must be sifted, sorted and assessed before becoming usable in a meaningful way.  Engaging your network through personal face-to-face conversations is a dying art, and one that is unmatched in the quality of information gained, plus it’s a lot more fun!


Today’s World

Today we seem to be inundated with technology that facilitates constant communication with our friends, colleagues and clients.  There is no doubt that Blackberries, iPhones, iPads, laptops, and the like make our working lives more efficient, but they also erode our ability to maintain a good work-life balance, and perhaps they limit our ability to engage people in a one-on-one discussion.  Every advance in communication technology seems to shorten the amount we say to the people we are connecting with; phone calls to emails to texts to tweets,  each time the amount we say reduces further and further.  So what you do you know about those who you “speak” with on a regular basis?

When we talk over email, text or instant message we can’t sense the tone, reactions, or underlying feelings of the other party.  We cannot evaluate the body language, the subtle facial expressions that make up so much of what is “communication.”  As a species we need these visual cues to reliably interpret the true intention behind a conversation.

We rely on technology to speed up our conversations or actions, but do we also rely on it to make it more comfortable in negotiating, or passing on difficult messages?  People act differently over text, email and even the phone.  Your work persona might be quite different from who you are at home or with friends.  How do you differ?  Are you more confident?  Are you more willing to push boundaries?

Our reliance on technology is never more obvious than during networking events, training sessions, etc.  Look around these rooms and see how many of your peers are striking out to meet new people? How many are willing to take the risk to join a group of people already conversing?   And yet to do so could lead to the next sales lead, the next hire, or your newest friend.

We should not be afraid of these interactions, so we encourage you to put down the Blackberry and strike out into new territory!   Pick up the phone and actually talk to those you wish to interact with, walk into the coffee area and talk to a stranger, you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose.


Limitations of Social Media Tools

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn offer unique avenues to build your networks, connect with old friends and colleagues and share information. Each has its strengths, but also weaknesses.

LinkedIn is exceptional as a research tool to identify individuals within certain companies, skillsets, or geographies.  However the search and communication functionality is costly when you desire to use the tool beyond the restrictive basic search.  Individuals can rarely afford the cost of upgrading their accounts unless sponsored by their companies. LinkedIn is also popular within specific industries, and has yet to reach its true potential.

Twitter is a way to follow specific individuals or companies, and keep abreast of their latest news, but also connects you with people who have like-minded interests.  However while the number of new users continues to grow, look behind those numbers, and over 60% only use it at the time of initiation, combine that with the overwhelming spam issues and Twitter quickly becomes a tool which generates minimal real interest.

Facebook is undoubtedly the most well-known and powerful of the social media tools. It’s cost free, expansive and a membership second –to-none.  However, it’s widely publicized privacy issues are making it harder to find and connect with new friends as members are becoming more protective of how their information is shared to those they are not yet connected with.


The Connection between the Online and Personal Networks

In building your conversational and networking skills you will look at your online networks through new eyes.  You will be more likely to call your Facebook or LinkedIn contacts for referrals, advice or just conversation!  The reality is that these online and personal networks are complimentary.


So what is Networking?

Networking is defined as a group of people who exchange information, contacts and experience for professional or social purposes (Oxford English Dictionary).  However people’s definitions often vary considerably depending on the context to which they use networking.   Whether you network to make new friends, find a new job, develop your current career, explore new career options, obtain referrals or sales leads, or simply to broaden your professional horizons, it is important to focus on networking as an exchange of information, contacts or experience.

Over the past decade networking has become an integral part of the way business is conceived, initiated and executed.   In any industry or career networking helps you make connections in a personal way and build relationships of support and respect to discover and create mutual benefits.


The Key to Successful Networking

The most important element to networking is to understand the purpose for which you are applying the skill.  So consider in any given environment, what are my objectives in being here?  For example, is it to gain a sales lead, or to garner best practices from a group of your peers?


The Basics of Networking

The basics of networking are often overlooked, for example do you remember to wear your name tag on your right side, so that it is within easy sight when shaking hands? We instinctively look in this area, and you may also notice that some individuals look “out of place” if they wear a name badge lower down, or on the opposite side.  So the basics are:

–          Practice a good firm handshake.  It should not make your companion wince in pain, nor should it leave them wondering if you actually just shook hands!


–          Introduce yourself while looking your companion in the eye.  Say your name clearly, “Hi, my name is Patrick Donlin, VP of Sales for Heartland IT Consulting.”  If you have a bad memory for names, then when they offer their name, repeat it back to them “Ian, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”


–          Practice your elevator speech, to have a prepared presentation that grabs attention and says a lot in a few words. What are you going to be saying? By telling your core message, you will be marketing yourself and/or your business, but in a way that rather than putting people off will make them want to know more about you and your business.


–          If the time is right exchange business cards, and remember to write a note or two on the reverse of the card once you are alone to provide you reminders of the person’s particular skills or interests.


–          After the event follow up with every individual you met and found to be of interest.  Maintain that contact over time, sharing information or offering to provide assistance to them.  Remember you only get back what you put in.


What is an Elevator Speech?  

An elevator speech is as essential as a business card, but all too often is under appreciated.  Individuals should craft at least two versions, one personal and one professional. In addition you should create at least two different lengths of each speech.  Personally I recommend a 20 second and 90 second version.

Your elevator speech should say who you are, what you do, what you are interested in doing and how you can be a resource to your audience.  It should grab the attention of the audience and make them interested to learn more about you or your company.

Start with a fresh piece of paper and sketch out a rough version; come back to it over the course of a week, tweaking the language until it becomes a finely honed marketing powerhouse.  Once you have the wording, memorize it, and practice on your family members, and ask them to ask you for it in unexpected moments, so that it becomes natural for you to deliver it without having to think about the wording.


What are Conversation Generators?

A conversation generator can be used in place of a formal introduction when entering a group, or as a way to drive a conversation once already part of a group.   In essence a conversation generator is a simple statement or question that enables the group to respond beyond just a “yes” or “no.”

These “ice-breakers” can be utilized in any situation, in any location and show others that you are interested in providing opportunities for the group as whole.   Example of great conversation generators include:

“How did you get involved with [….]?”

“I hear the speaker today is [….]”

“Can you tell me a little bit about this [….]?”

“It looks as though we’re going to have a full flight.”

“This is my first time to attend a [….] meeting.”

“Is this your first time here? Let me introduce you to [….]”

“I didn’t realize there would be such a crowd today.”

Remember conversation generators should be simple, straightforward and easy to respond to.


How to Work a Room

Working the room or “mingling” is an important weapon in your networking arsenal, and one that many individuals are intimidated by.   With a little planning and preparation we can all become masters at working the room, building on the basics above

–          Survey the room, look for someone you have met previously and to whose group you can join, alternatively look for groups which look to be having the most fun.  Another approach is to find and engage the “alpha” of the group, once you gain their “acceptance” the others will instinctively follow suit.


–          Introduce yourself, and actively listen to the conversation, and participate as appropriate.

–          Move between groups, after five to eight minutes, excuse yourself politely “It was nice meeting you …” or “I have just spotted someone I need to visit with.”  This ability to move continuously through the room will greatly enhance the volume of networking possibilities.

–          Before you attend any event, training programme etc., consider the environment you will be in, and work on a few conversation generators. Remember by articulating your core message, you will be marketing yourself and/or your business, but in a way that will make them want to know more about you and your business.

–          As you circulate the room, don’t be afraid to make connections for other people. The best networkers make quality introductions, so be cognizant to introduce people who have similar interests or careers.


How to Work a Table

Whether you are at an event that features a meal or are in a training session where individuals are grouped at tables, the art of working a table brings its own specific rules to making a great impression.

–          Act as though you are the head of the table at a family meal.

–          Introduce yourself to the group as a whole, and then work your way around the table, shaking hands with each individual.

–          The table will naturally fall into quiet moments, at these times take the opportunity to start the conversation by asking questions, for example why people are there, what they hope to gain, how they found out about the event.  Avoid talking about yourself at length, continue to ask questions, and bring people into the conversation that may be naturally quiet.

–          Only distribute business cards if you are asked for one, and do not give each person a card upon arrival at the table.



Key Takeaways

True conversation requires effort on your part, both in preparation and execution.  Following these simple takeaways you too can master the art of conversation:

–          Practice your conversation generators and elevator speeches at every opportunity, whether that is in an elevator, plane, grocery store line, or networking event.

–          You have something in common with everyone you meet, and you can learn from everyone you meet.

–          Have confidence in your ability to hold a conversation, remember everyone around you is also a little nervous at striking up conversations.

–          Ask questions of a personal nature to build a report that goes beyond your baseline relationship.

–          The more effort you place on conversations, the greater the benefits will be.

–          Refer the contacts you make to other contacts, be the facilitator.

–          Who you know is far more important than what you know.



The Art of Conversation is a skill that requires preparation and hard work, but the dividends for doing so are boundless.  By developing these social skills, you will develop greater confidence in your ability to meet people, generate conversation and discover new networking opportunities.


Patrick Donlin is Vice President of Sales at Heartland IT Consulting, a national staff augmentation and consulting services firm focusing on Oracle, Business Intelligence, JD Edwards and PeopleSoft platforms.