Does making “small talk” cause a “big fear” in you? Do you wish you could melt into the floor when you have to enter a room full of strangers?
There are several techniques you can use to be more comfortable. Find someone, preferably someone who is alone, and look at him or her. If the other person looks back, smile. If the other person smiles slightly, walk over.
Realize that you have something in common with everyone else in that room: you are all in the same place. Therefore, make a comment and then ask a question about the place. (You can also talk about the weather, the event, or something else you have in common, such as belonging to the same organization.)
Examples might be, “It is sure cold outside! How far did you have to go to get here??” or “This is a fabulous facility! What’s in the rest of it?”
Before you walk into the room, figure out 5 open-ended questions you can ask, to encourage the other person to talk. Base them on what you and s/he may have in common, or how s/he got to this point in life. For example, “How do you know [the host]?” Another question might be, “Based on your shirt emblem, we both work for the same employer! What do you do for the XYZ Company?” One or more questions can be based on local or corporate news, so stay up to date on current events. After 5 questions, if the conversation is still awkward, it’s time to excuse yourself and move to someone else.
Excuse yourself by giving a valid reason to move on, such as “I’ve enjoyed talking to you, but I need to meet some new people (or visit a vendor, get something to eat, etc). Have a great evening!” Smile and move away to do whatever you said in your reason.
If you are travelling on a airplane or ship, the rules need to be modified. Remember you have the experience of being on the same conveyance in common. Comment/question pairs such as “Wow – look at that sunset! What are sunsets like where you come from?” would be appropriate. You cannot move away from the other person, so watch his body language carefully for signs that he wants to end the conversation. One such sign might be lack of eye contact. If you want to end it, use a reason such as “It’s nice talking to you, but I really need to finish my work.” Then look at the book or papers.
There are more such rules in networking, especially in business networking, but the ones above are basic in the American culture.
These rules can be learned through books, seminars, and coaching.