12/22/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Secrets of a Veteran Party Schmoozer


By Susan Dench, President, Muddy Dog Media

The holiday season is underway and you know what that means -- mixing and mingling with your (and your significant other's) clients, colleagues, bosses and the spouses you probably see once a year. Personally, I find these "dos" a lot of fun, but know they can inspire anxiety in many people. With the proper preparation, you might actually find yourself enjoying these events (yes, really!).

Party Question #1: What should I talk about?

Bernardo Carducci wrote that, "every great romance and each big business deal begins with small talk. The key to successful small talk is learning how to connect with others, not just communicate with them."

Chose a non-controversial topic or something amusing you've read about in the morning paper. Or start with an opening gambit about something mundane having to do with the setting you both find yourselves in or what they are doing for the holiday. It doesn't have to be clever, just a small conversation starter.

Have a little something prepared when you are introduced. Instead of saying, "I work at a hospital," you'll get a lot more response from, "I work in the Emergency Department and you wouldn't believe how many sports injuries we've seen lately!" Curiosity will probably keep the conversation moving forward as people ask about the types of sports and injuries involved.

My husband has a fantastic and utterly charming way of breaking the ice. When he is asked what he does, he replies, "I'm a lawyer -- but please don't hold that against me!" That always breaks the ice and gets people chuckling. And believe me -- everyone has some sort of lawyer story they want to relate.

Party Question #2: What should I do if the conversation turns to politics, religion or something controversial?

Your alarm bells should be going off because you will find yourself treading in dangerous waters here. Unless you happen to be at an event where you know everyone thinks the same way you do, the best thing to say is, "Yes, politics/religion/other can be complicated" and change the subject quickly. Very, very quickly.

Party Question #3: What should I do if I blank on someone's name?

You are telling someone how important they are if you can remember their name and/or the content of your previous conversations. And if not, well, I confess to using the "I'm an idiot, you're brilliant" ploy more than I should have to.

I say something like, "Wow, you have an amazing memory! You're so kind to remember my name from that long ago -- I can't remember the names of people I met yesterday. I'm terribly sorry, but could you please remind me of your name again?"

If I have to introduce two people and can't remember one's name, I (with sincere apologies to the manners mavens) ditch the introduction etiquette and go for the, "May I introduce John Jones?" approach, hoping and praying that the nameless person throws out his name (which they almost always do).

You may find the shoe on the other foot when someone doesn't remember your name. Give people a presumptive out by starting each conversation with a handshake and, "Hi Bill, I'm Susan Dench," especially if you haven't seen them in a while. Whether it's needed or not, the gesture will be much appreciated.

Party Question #4: How do I stop getting tongue tied around people at much higher levels than me?

Don't let rank or position affect your style. No matter who you are conversing with, they are human as well. The janitor and the CEO both put their pants on one leg at a time, have the same worries about their children and also have outside hobbies and interests they enjoy chatting about. (I find asking about the family pet is an especially good topic -- I mean, who doesn't love to gush about their beloved furry friends?)

No matter where people are in the social or business pecking order, they are still just people. And most people are genuinely nice human beings. Be yourself and you'll be fine.

Party Question #5: The conversation has run its course -- how do I make tracks?

England's Queen Elizabeth has a secret cue she uses in the course of social dealings with her subjects. When Her Majesty is ready to wrap things up, she switches her handbag from one arm to another, signaling her handlers to move in and usher her away.

If you don't have a retinue of servants (or a wing man) to help you out, thank your connection partner for his time and make a polite excuse to move on. "I've really enjoyed our conversation, but I need to...", "Oh, I've just realized the time and have to..." "Please excuse me, but I need to..." (And do what you said you were going to do.)

Another way to leave is by wrapping up your conversation to forestall an awkward exit by smiling warmly, extending your hand, using their name and saying something like, "Thanks for the tip on that new restaurant, Dave" or "I never realized how much work went into staging an art show, Annie."

You can also gently suggest they need to mingle by saying something like, "I don't want to monopolize your time, I need to let you go and meet some more people" or "Well, it was great to see you again!"

Remember, you're not asking permission to leave, you are taking control of the situation. You shouldn't feel badly and you certainly don't want to monopolize someone's time. If you are feeling it's time to move on, your conversation partner may well be feeling the same thing but doesn't know how to initiate an exit.

Now, take a deep breath and wade in!

Susan Dench is the founder and president of The Connectworks Academy, a training, development and advisory firm which uses her trademarked system to help organizations who want to accelerate the advancement of a diversified workforce engage employees through communication and personal connections. She is also the author of "Connectworking: The Savvy Woman's Guide To Turning Small Talk Into Big Business."She can be reached at or @SusanDench.