I've already shared the fact that I'm a secret introvert. Yes, I can present to hundreds of people without breaking a sweat. However, put me in an unstructured setting--like a networking event or a cocktail party--and I'd rather wash dirty plates than mingle.

But Mark Wiskup, author of The It Factor: Be the One People Like, Listen to and Remember, would like me to reconsider my hatred for small talk. Not only does Wiskup make a case for embracing networking situations; he provides a formula for being successful.

Intrigued? I was, too. 

Wiskup suggests starting by finding role models: "those who travel through every reception with ease and light up every conversation." These folks "don't dread or disdain small talk . . . It's just a step in the connection process."

How do great networkers do it? They follow "successful pattern in making connections with people you meet for the first time in business, networking or social situations."

There's an important concept here: Networking is not unstructured social time; it's work. But if you look at small talk as having a purpose--to make meaningful connections--then the effort is worthwhile.

I already knew the importance of asking insightful questions. Writes Wiskup: "Questions are the spark that create intimacy and sharing experiences, which quickly lead to new connections."

But what I didn't know is that there's a formula for effective questioning: Choose one of three topics, then ask four specific questions about that topic in a prescribed order.

Wiskup advises against asking about the weather (It doesn't lead anywhere.) or sports (A lot of people just don't care.). Instead, pursue these three topics--profession, hometown or hobbies/activities--because they're universal subjects that everyone can respond to.

Once you select your topic, use this questioning method to facilitate your conversation: 

  • First, ask a broad, general question about the topic. 
  • Next, follow up with a more focused question. 
  • With your third question, continue to drill down on the topic.
  • Offer some information of your own, based on what the person has told you, then end with a quick fourth question.

This formula works well because:

  • It engages the person you're talking to.
  • You're signaling that you're genuinely interested in the person and what they're saying.
  • Because you go beyond the superficial ("Sure is hot!"), you're able to make a real connection, which is the foundation for starting a relationship.

Wiskup shows how the formula works when talking about hobbies/activities:

Q1: "When you aren't practicing law, what do you do to relax?"

Response: "I love yoga! About two years a friend invited me to a class and I've been going ever since."

Q2: "Do you feel yoga gives you enough of a workout?"

Response: "Before I started, I would have said that yoga's not real exercise. But it's the best workout I've ever had."

Q3: "How often do you take yoga classes?"

Response: "About twice a week. I still do free weights about once a week as well. I like the variety."

Declarative statement and question: "I'm not sure I'm flexible enough for yoga. Would you recommend I try it even though I have trouble touching my toes?"

Response: "Yes, I do think you should try it. My bet is that you're really going to like it."

As Wiskup explains, "With this exchange, you've tapped into the other person's passion in a very specific way. It's a very quick connection builder."