Life-changing conversations don’t always happen after a presentation in the workplace—they happen in elevators, hallways, and break rooms.
Your greatest opportunity may not come when you have the room’s undivided attention. It may come in the form of passing a CEO in a hallway or approaching the new team manager while they’re getting coffee. Either way, you have to be prepared to make an impression without visual aids or a rehearsed speech.
But if this sounds terrifying, don’t panic—it’s easier than you think.
Just like great public speaking comes from a few basic tenets, strategic workplace conversation is wrapped up in a couple of skills. In fact, the overlap between giving a good presentation and talking to your boss in the breakroom is pretty big. Essentially, regardless of whether or not you have a lectern in front of you, you need to know your topic, be concise, and stay true to yourself.
Here’s what I mean:
1. In the elevator know your pitch.
There isn’t a person in business who hasn’t heard the phrase “elevator pitch.”
So, of course, it follows that one of the most important topics you can have in your back pocket is a two-sentence project summation, just in case. But that doesn’t mean when you notice you’re sharing the 12-floor ride with the CFO that you should just start pitching it to them.
First, engage the person in conversation. Say “Good morning!”, ask “How was your weekend?” or some other piece of crucial small talk. When they return the favor, then it’s your chance. The answer to “How was your weekend?” can easily be tied into your elevator pitch. “It was great, thanks! I had some downtime to think about this project… [INSERT ELEVATOR PITCH HERE].”
Hopefully, the person sharing your elevator ride likes your pitch and you’ll walk out together with an invitation to email them details later.
2. In the hallway be straightforward.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an office with hallways will be in need of small talk.
But you don’t have to play it cool when you see a person you want to talk with—you can be as straightforward as needed.
For example, if you see a team leader you want to connect with in the hallway, the expected conversation may be “Hi! How are you?” “Great! You?” And so on and so forth all while you pass one another at a leisurely pace. However, there’s no harm in acknowledging meetings you may have been in together—or one you’d like to set up.
Instead of exchanging pleasantries, you can start with a greeting and then a direct question or statement that opens up a conversation around a project you’re working on. Maybe, “Hi! Thanks for your email today on metrics—I’d love to get your thoughts on my data analysis later this week, would you have time?” If they say yes, then you’ve made a connection. If they say no, then you’ve still reminded them about what you’re currently working on, putting a friendly face to the name.
Either way, it’s worth mentioning in a straight forward way, with no expectations.
3. In the breakroom be true to yourself.
One of the most sacred spaces in an office is the breakroom.
This is where most of your colleagues will come to turn their brain off for just a few minutes while they make coffee, eat lunch, or read a book for a few minutes. But it can also be a great spot to network with people not on your team.
Now, you don’t want to come off as overly professional or direct in a breakroom conversation. You’ll want to sound as much like yourself as possible—remember, everyone’s on a break so your demeanor should match.
For example, you can start by talking with your preferred person about some personal detail you may know about them. Maybe they have a kid that plays a sport you love or they just came back from a vacation. Open with a caring question about this personal detail and talk genuinely with them. Don’t pick a topic you don’t care about—again, the point is to be true to yourself. Now, you can stop there—you’ll have open lines of communication with an important person and they’ll have yet another way to put a face to your name.
Or you can work on a project you want to talk with them about as we’ve discussed above.
Networking in the workplace is all about snagging opportunities as they arise and being brave enough to approach coworkers without any pomp or circumstance. Sure, you could wait until your next big presentation, but why wait when they’re standing right in front of you?
You never know when you’ll have a moment one-on-one with that person again. Seize your chance—you can only improve.