It's the most wonderful time of the year – until you're stumped at a Christmas party by a nosy colleague. Fortunately, Don Gabor, former spokesperson for Frito Lay and author of "Turn Small Talk Into Big Deals," has some communications recommendations to help you deflect difficult questions and even cultivate business leads during holiday events. Here are some golden-rule tips from Gabor:
Do your homework.
Ask for a guest list prior to attending an event, and do research on people of interest. Then define your goals: Who do you want to talk to? What do you want to achieve from different conversations? Possible answers include potential investors, partners or even just valuable insider insight to your industry.
"You can't always get a guest list, but just say, â€˜I just want to know who is going to be there and get to know their names,'" Gabor said. "Get a little background. It's not snooping; it just shows, to me, you're working with someone who doesn't jump in both feet first without looking. It represents confidence and business savvy that a potential (partner will appreciate)."
Don't be afraid to introduce yourself to people of interest. Most professionals come to holiday parties expecting to network.
After approaching people, start small talk about immediate surroundings or commonalities.
"If I'm at an event where there are food vendors or manufacturers or restaurateurs, I like to talk about the food," Gabor said. "So the fodder for small talk should start locally."
Other possible springboard topics include local cultural events, speakers at hand, or even the weather.
Make it a point to eliminate any negativity, however. Don't reveal or complain that your numbers are down – or discredit competitors. "You have to be careful about saying anything negative about the competitor, even if the person says something negative about your business," Gabor said. "You keep it positive." Talk shop – but only a little.
"I am always listening very carefully to people I'm talking with about any reference to a business topic," Gabor said. "Because that's my signal to turn the conversation toward that topic, i.e.: â€˜I heard you mention real estate rental space is going down in (XYZ area); are you finding restaurants are looking for bigger spaces?' Use that to transition to a business conversation."
But there's a caveat to how far you can take shop talk at a party. "Some people just don't want to get into the details. So you have to be flexible.
"If you do discover that a person and you have pockets to visit later, say, â€˜Sounds like we have some business topics we could talk about all day; maybe I can give you a call later and we can get together.' Present an invitation to get back in touch with the person. Some entrepreneurs forget that parties are for socializing. And if they're spouses are with them, even more so."
Deflect criticism or tough questions.
Though fraternizing about industry gossip can be tempting, Gabor warned against it. And when sensitive questions are hurled at you in front of an audience that you'd rather not share with, you should exit the situation with stern verbal grace.
"It's easy to get trapped into those situations – questions like, â€˜So why did you fire Frank?' You don't want to say â€˜because he had his hand in the till,' even if that's what it was. Just say, â€˜I'd rather not get into that right now,' and if someone pushes you, just repeat that. It's the broken record technique. If someone's trying to push you into doing that, they're probably trying to push you into a pile of quicksand."