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Talking shop, part one

Career conversation: Yakking well


Ann HumphriesWith Ann Humphries, ETICON

First installment in a two-part series. This week: The right way to handle business conversations. Next week: Some ways not to put your best foot ... into your mouth.

(CNN) -- For those moments when you sound like a name tag: "Hello, my name is " ... and you stop.


Nothing else to say. Aren't you glad you came to this convention?

It's that time of year. Some careerists (how dedicated is this?) use vacation time to attend conventions of their professional organizations. And many such confabs are set during the warmer months, at least offering the occasional recreation amid the seminars, panel discussions and rubber-chicken dinners.

graphic How good are you at business conversation?

I could carry on a great talk with a doorknob. And many doorknobs attend conventions.
I'm good sometimes but it's mostly luck -- don't feel sure of myself.
Uniformly terrible. I freeze, I stammer. Hello, my name is ...?
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CNN: We knew who to turn to. And -- never at a loss for good words -- Ann Humphries of ETICON -- was standing by, complimentary tote bag in hand.

Ann Humphries: OK, you're in the large-business-convention setting, let's take that as our context and develop the conversational structure that goes around it. Let's get three quick points out of the way. In general:

•  At breakfast, you can start talking business as soon as the coffee is poured. It's early, time is short, you can get right to it.

•  At lunch, you wait until the orders have been taken. Then you can talk shop.

•  At dinner, talking business at all can be dodgy. Use your instincts. Don't press right into it unless you're sure it's appropriate. Dinner may be the most social-not-business of the meals.

On the broader level, business conversation in settings like these is a skill like driving: Everybody thinks they're OK at it. But some are really experts and they can make the others pale by comparison. If you're not a natural at this -- and you can tell very quickly -- go at it like a sport. Concentrate, plan, think ahead, practice.

A smart marketer I've talked to says it this way: "We don't want our reps to just show up and throw up." He means that his company doesn't want its people walking into one of these settings and being capable of nothing but a sales pitch. They need enough social grace and conversational poise to hold their own in the wider social context.

Need some topics of conversation? Draft them ahead, have a few ready. Try best and worst lists.

•  What was one of the best things your company did this year? We had trouble with so-and-so last quarter, did you? -- on this, keep it light. No need to delve into the Dark Side about what went wrong, just keep moving.

•  What's the newest thing you're working on? What's new on your list?

Everybody has a snake story. If you don't believe it, tell yours and watch what happens.

•  Which projects did you finish last year? What's a day at the office like for you now?

•  How does this convention compare to the last two? (If you find out this is the person's third trip to San Francisco, ask about the first two.) Are there other people from your firm here? Did you bring your family along?

Now, this week we're talking mostly about what to do -- next week, we'll go over some things to avoid. But I'm going to jump ahead just enough to insert here that if you ask someone where she's from and she says Littleton or Oklahoma City, don't necessarily talk Columbine and the Murrah Building. You could go there, but you choose not to. There's more to those cities than those incidents. Give them a break.

It's always good to talk about people you and a conversational partner might have in common -- but look out for "do you know": "Oh, you're from Pittsburgh? -- do you know ... . " Big conversation killer.

There's a good conversation behind every careerist and some of our best Corporate Class topics have been suggested by our readers. Go for it: Use our handy submission form to tell us what's on your mind.

Don't stay on any topic too long. Keep it moving.

•  Seasonal topics work well right now, of course -- gardening, pollen, outdoor activities, more pollen, baseball and vacations in the pollen.

•  Pets. Usually cats. Always dogs.

•  Everybody has a snake story. If you don't believe it, tell yours and watch what happens.

•  Exercise. The LifeStep. The Precor treadmill. Suzanne Somers. Stop the insanity.

•  Hot topics in the news are always good -- scan the Net to find the headlines. But don't rehash old stories, you'll sound out-of-date.

Lastly, try this: A friend of mine says she does an alphabet game, thinking of conversation topics that start with each letter of the alphabet. She connects a person's name to the topic she associates with that letter of the alphabet. Sounds complicated, but at least she does some preparation -- sketching out some notes ahead, not winging it, is the real key.

What's in a name? Maybe a rewarding little business conversation.

Next week: What to avoid in your business conversations.

South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges has named Ann Humphries, founder and president of ETICON Inc., one of seven South Carolina Women of Achievement. Humphries, who's based in Columbia, is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management. Her clients have included several Fortune 500 companies. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Money, and on CNN, CBS and Lifetime TV. You can contact her at


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• When your buddy becomes your boss
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• Cellular phones in the workplace: We've got your number
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• The job interview: Being on the mark when you're on the spot
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• What not to say in an interview
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• Debatable
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• 'A.M.' does not stand for 'ambush'
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• E-mail for careerists: Care enough to send the very best
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