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The art of the holiday schmooze

Small-talk. The very name implies insignificance.So why would anyone who has already mastered the art of big-talk – closing statements, cross-examinations, complex contract negotiations – stoop so low as to master the art of chit-chat?

How about these for starters?

  • Because it brings in business.
  • Because it helps you keep valuable clients once you find them.
  • Because it increases your chance of promotion.
  • Because it frees you from hiding behind a potted plant at the next holiday party.

    These are just a few of the reasons speaker/author Debra Fine offers to explain why lawyers need to master this much-maligned social skill.

    “This isn’t elevator talk,” said Fine, author of ‘The Fine Art of Small Talk.’

    “You need these skills in order to be a rainmaker. The only way to build business is through relationships. You may be able to get me as a client, but will you be able to keep me? Probably not, unless we you develop a business relationship.”

    The same holds true for those seeking promotions.

    “People promote people they feel comfortable with,” said Fine, a former engineer and self-proclaimed shy person, who now speaks nationally on the subject.

    To support this assertion, she cites a study of Stanford Business School graduates which found that 10 years after receiving their MBA, there was no correlation between their grade point average and their success – but there was a strong correlation between their success and their ability to converse.

    It’s All In Your Attitude

    You may assume that it all starts with an arsenal of opening lines – a list of conversation starters you can pull out of your pocket and plug into any situation.


    It begins with your attitude.

    “Your job is to assume the burden of other people’s comfort in social situations,” said Fine.

    This is a more profound piece of advice than it may appear at first glance. Most people go into a social situation hoping to impress others with their wit, insight and intelligence – and, naturally, have a good time.

    While there’s nothing wrong with any of these goals, Fine contends that the focus is misplaced. Your focus should be on making others feel interesting, witty and insightful – and above all, comfortable.

    “People hire other people for two reasons, period: to get their problem solved and because they feel comfortable with that person,” said Fine. “You may know of several dentists who have a reputation for competence, but the one you hire is going to be the one you feel comfortable with. The same goes for lawyers.”

    With this overall attitude in mind, Fine offers specific advice on each phase of the social interaction.


    Fine’s first piece of advice is to be the first person to say hello. Don’t let your fear of rejection – “What if he doesn’t remember me?” – hold you back. Keep in mind that your primary goal is to ease the social burden of others, not worry about yourself. By saying hello first, you are indicating that you remember and like the person. It makes him feel important and relieves him of the burden of having to make the first move.

    Be sure to catch the person’s name and use it several times during the conversation so that it is imprinted on your memory. And come armed with two or three opening lines that suit the occasion. These “icebreakers” can be as generic as how she knows the host, what drew her to the conference or what she knows about the one of the speakers.

    “If it is a business function, you might ask how she got started in this field or to describe a typical day on the job,” said Fine. “If the gathering is more social in nature, you might ask someone to describe their best vacation or their favorite thing to do on a rainy day. If you are at a holiday party, you could ask them to describe their favorite holiday tradition or their favorite family member.”

    The key, according to Fine, is to ask a question that is not easily answered in a single word or sentence. What you are looking for is some bit of information to latch onto and explore further.


    Now that you’ve broken the ice, it’s your job to sustain the fledgling conversation. Again, Fine provides specific advice.

    First and foremost, be an active listener.

    “Give each person your undivided attention,” said Fine. “Never look over their shoulder to scan the crowd. Maintain eye contact. Make them feel like they are the only person in the room. ”

    Active listening consists of looking for clues about the person’s interests, picking up small references and asking follow-up questions to explore the point in more depth.

    But remember that the conversation shouldn’t ever be one way. It’s supposed to be a conversation, not an interview – and that means that you have to contribute your share of information to the interaction.

    “If someone asks you, ‘How’s work?’ and you reply ‘Pretty good,’ you’re not playing the game,” said Fine. “You have to give the person a sentence with some information so they can ask you more about it. Make the conversation like a tennis match, not a batting cage.”

    This is just as true in more formal business encounters.

    “When a potential client comes into your office and asks, ‘How was your weekend?’ and you reply, ‘Pretty good,’ you’ve missed a huge opportunity to become a human being to that person and not just a suit.”

    Since you’re ultimate goal is to create a positive impression, your body language should be confident without being aggressive. This helps put people at ease, while nervous ticks such as hair twirling or constantly shifting your weight convey discomfort which, in turn, makes the other person uncomfortable.

    Fine said you also want to establish yourself as a helper and a leader, so you should play an active role in introducing people to one another.

    “This creates a good impression because you are helping people feel at ease and mix,” she said. “This is important because a rainmaker is a leader and leaders make people feel comfortable around them. If I’m an attorney, I want you to like me because you are going to hire an attorney you like.”

    Fine also has some thoughts on what NOT to do while schmoozing. For example:

  • Don’t be a “Monopolizer.”

    The goal of any conversation is balance. You want to be interesting and entertaining, but you also want others to feel interesting and entertaining. People like to be around people who make them feel good about themselves.

  • Don’t be an “FBI agent.”

    Conversely, you don’t want to grill others relentlessly about their jobs, interests and family lives. You’re not showing an interest when you ask a series of questions and don’t explore or respond to any of the answers.

    If you ask a person how he knows the host and he says he met her rock climbing in the Sierra Nevada, and your next question is what he thought of the last speaker, that person is going to see that your feigned interest is not genuine.

  • Don’t offer unsolicited advice.

    Fine said lawyers are notorious for jumping in with advice where none is wanted. It can be seen as obnoxious, so don’t do it.

  • Don’t assume nicknames.

    This one is a pet peeve for Fine, whose name is Debra – not Deb, not Debbie – Debra.

    “Lawyers and doctors do that a lot,” she said. “They think it’s a way to be friendly, but it can have the opposite effect. People call me Debbie and I hate it.”

    Exit Strategy

    Don’t squander the fine impression you have made by making a clumsy exit.

    Fine’s first rule is: Don’t melt away from a conversation. This is the instinct of many shy or overly polite people. They don’t want to disturb the conversation by drawing attention to their exit, so they try to slip away unnoticed.

    Big mistake, said Fine.

    Your goal is to leave the people with a strong positive impression, so tell the person how much you have enjoyed talking to him and use his name – make an active departure.

    But how do you do that without seeming rude or abrupt – especially when engaged in a one-on-one conversation?

    That’s where the exit strategy comes in, according to Fine.

    Step one, she said, is to give the person a warning that you are about to leave. Since you also want to indicate that you’re interested in what they’re saying at the moment, you simply mention that you have to leave, but you want to hear about that first. “Say you are at the bar and someone is clinging to you,” said Fine. “You want to move around the room more and meet more people. So you give them a warning. For example: ‘I’ve need to talk to a colleague before she takes off. But this is a very interesting case. How did it come out?’ Chances are, the person will give you a quick summary and let you go.”

    Fine suggests three broad categories of exit strategies:

    1) I need to….

    You fill in the blank – get a drink, get some food, use the bathroom, talk to the speaker before she leaves. The important thing is never to lie. If you say you need to get a drink, make sure you go straight to the bar. And don’t get waylaid. If someone stops you along the way, say you really want to talk and will be right back after you get a drink.

    “It’s important that you go straight to your destination,” said Fine. “The person you just left has to see you do what you said you were leaving them to do. Otherwise, they are going to conclude you just blew them off.”

    2) Ask for a referral.

    Another graceful way to exit a conversation is to ask the person you’re talking to for a referral. By “referral” Fine doesn’t mean a tip on a new client, she means someone at the function who knows about a subject your need to discuss.

    If it’s a social function, the referral can be almost anything – Do you know any other empty-nesters here? Do you know anyone who has sailed offshore? Do you know anyone who is into birdwatching?

    “If this is a work-related function, you might ask the person if he knows anyone that specializes in environmental law,” suggested Fine.

    3) Why don’t you join me?

    If exiting seems awkward but you feel it’s time to move on, you can combine your exit strategy with your role of making others comfortable. Simply tell the person that you need to go talk to [name] – the host, a colleague, a person you met at the conference last year – and invite the person you’re speaking with to join you.

    The person may the opportunity to bow out and talk to someone new, or he may take you up on your offer. Either way, you have freed yourself to move around the room.

    Fine emphasizes that the ultimate goal of small talk – besides generating some genuinely interesting conversations – is to establish contacts and develop good will among those attending the function. As such, there is nothing trivial about small talk.

    “Small talk is like the appetizer for the longer relationship,” she said.

    And it is just as important in more formal business relationships, whether it’s meeting with an individual client or providing counsel to executives of a big corporate client. The name of the game is relationships, and small-talk is the door to those relationships.

    “Small talk should be a picture frame around every business conversation,” she said. “It should happen at both the beginning and the end because this is your opportunity to develop a relationship with that person.”

    For more information, you can contact Debra Fine through her website at www.debrafine.com

    Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: bill.ibelle@lawyersweekly.com