Become a Small-Talk Master

Five tips on becoming a dynamite networker when you don't know anyone in the room

Duke staff members mingle during a 2014 Blue Ribbon Awards recognition luncheon at the Doris Duke Center at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Photo by Duke Photography

When Dorie Clark was a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, she volunteered on political campaigns in Massachusetts. She was required to attend fundraisers, where she didn’t know anyone, to network.

She told herself a successful evening meant talking to at least three people.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said Clark, now a branding expert and adjunct professor in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. “I would essentially need to force myself to talk to people, because otherwise, if you’re a little bit introverted, the impulse might be to hide in a corner.”

Clark, named one of “25 Professional Networking Experts to Watch in 2015” by Forbes, travels the world presenting to companies and universities on how to be a stand-out networker.

Here are five ways to become a dynamite networker:

Find the introvert

When Ingrid Byerly’s 6-year-old son attended summer camp, he sought out children who looked alone and started talking to them. By the end of camp, he had multiple new friends.

The same practice can be applied to a professional networking event, said Byerly, a Duke senior lecturing fellow who teaches public speaking.

“You go up to someone who looks the most nervous and you ask them about themselves,” she said.

Practice makes perfect

Join a public speaking group, such as a Toastmasters chapter at Duke, to learn how to speak effectively.

Duke associate professor Zbigniew Kabala, vice president of education for Pratt School of Engineering’s PRATTically Speaking Toastmasters, said practicing with others can reveal physical tics and vocal projection and eye contact problems.

“We evaluate every aspect of the meeting in a friendly way, and we will give you constructive criticism,” Kabala said.

Start small

The most efficient way to network is not by attending large events, said Clark. If large events make you uncomfortable, don’t dedicate a lot of time to big conferences or expos.

“Create your own events or go to small events,” Clark said. “That will be more satisfying.”

You don’t have to talk all the time

Byerly, the Duke public speaking instructor, said spending some time alone at an event isn’t a sign of weakness.

“You don’t have to be running your mouth all the time to try and impress people,” she said.

It’s a two-way conversation

Being a good conversationalist aligns with being a good citizen: Be engaged, be humble and don’t be obnoxious, said Kabala of PRATTically Speaking Toastmasters.

“Don’t be an egoist,” he said. “Be excited about your stuff but be interested in what the other person is doing.”