I recently read about a study of MBAs 10 years after they graduated. Researchers at Stanford School of Business found that Grade Point averages had no bearing on their success. Surprisingly, a major deciding factor was their ability to converse with others.

The skill of connecting in short, casual conversations can make or break careers - sales or otherwise. Through these interactions we gather information and, hopefully, make a favourable impression. I'll confess that I am an introvert in extrovert's clothing. I can yammer away to people I know at gatherings such as conventions or training sessions, but I find it difficult to break the ice with new people. In my discomfort, I can forget of the three golden rules for small talk:

1. Shut up and listen.

2. When in doubt, repeat Rule 1.

3. People, even the really shy ones, like to talk about themselves and will do so if you know how to draw them out. You have to be genuinely interested, and let go of your need to talk and take over the conversation.

Only then will you make a good impression.

To listen intently takes both great skill and great discipline, which is why mere mortals such as myself fall short. It is so easy to respond to a casual comment by unwittingly turning the spotlight back on yourself: "You're selling office equipment to hospitals? I called on General Hospital . . ." Your small talk might be helpful, witty and even relevant, but you're nonetheless talking instead of listening. You never learn anything while talking, except that you talk too much.

Rule 1 can take a lifetime to learn, especially for certain introverts masquerading as extroverts. Below are a few other tricks that can help while mastering Rule 1.

1. Watch your body language. People who look ill at ease make others uncomfortable. Act confident even when you're not, looking people in the eye instead of at the floor (my personal challenge). If you are uncomfortable smiling at strangers, learn the art of the subtle smile, which is smiling with your lips closed. Now you're starting to look friendly and approachable. After you feel more at ease with someone, you can show a little tooth.

2. Be the first to say "Hello."

3. Introduce yourself by name , even if you think they know it. "I don't think we've met. I'm Queen Elizabeth II." It's very awkward when someone starts a conversation with "remember me?" and the other person doesn't.

4. Take your time during introductions. Make an extra effort to remember names and use them frequently.

5. Open with simple probes.

• 'Hi, I'm Nicki. What do you think of the [party, conference, cheese puffs]?"

• "Hi, I'm Nicki. I sell cemetery plots. What do you do?"

• "Hi, I'm Nicki. Isn't the food delicious?"

They are neutral questions that invite the other person to talk. After you ask your question, listen. When you run into a casual acquaintance, ask what she's been doing lately. Then listen.

6. Keep the conversation going. Ask folks for their opinions or comments, with follow-up questions based on their answers.

• Did you see that movie?

• What was it about?

• What did you think of it?

• What other new movies have you enjoyed?

If you are genuinely interested in their answers, most people will be surprised and flattered. Resist the temptation to display your own special brand of brilliance, and when you catch yourself doing so, switch the focus back to the other person. Later on, when the relationship has evolved beyond small talk, you can strut your fabulousness.

7. Ask questions. If you want to join a group involved in an ongoing conversation , research shows that the best entry line is to ask a question about the topic under discussion. Don't shift to a new topic, a tactic that can make the group feel threatened.

8. Focus on the speaker. There's nothing worse than chatting with a person who keeps scanning the room looking for someone more important. Give your current conversation partner your full and real attention, facing him directly and looking in his eyes.

9. Have a few exit lines ready so that you can both gracefully move on. For example,

• "I need to talk with that client over there."

• "I skipped lunch today, so I need to visit the buffet."

• "Can I refresh your drink?"

• "Is the bathroom over there? Thanks."

When should you exit a conversation? According to Susan RoAne, an author and speaker known as the "Mingling Maven," your objective in all encounters should be to make a good impression and leave people wanting more. To do that, she advises: "Be bright. Be brief. Be gone."

10. Practice gratitude. If you are the one who is 'brushed off', say something short and sweet:

• "I enjoyed our chat."

• "I enjoyed meeting you."

The key to being a successful schmoozer is simple: you don't have to be brilliant but you do have to be kind. Show willingness to converse, and support the efforts of others who are trying to do the same.

Author's Bio: 

Nicki Weiss is the founder of SalesWise, a Toronto-based sales coaching and sales management training company. Nicki is a certified sales management coach, master training and seminar leader. Join up for her free newsletter today!