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The Careers Coach: 'Only start small talk when you are interested in the other person'

Karin Bodewits is the founder of career platforms ScienceMums and NaturalScience.Careers in Munich. She’s the author of a career guide for female natural scientists, gives seminars and talks, and campaigns to help women bridge the gap between motherhood and career. Here’s her story.

Turning negative energies into positive emotions is my strength.

Before every seminar and talk I feel nervous like most people do. But I just tell myself that I love this feeling of being nervous. It is exactly those moments that I think ‘YES, I am alive!’

My body language sets the tone for the entire day.

I actively pay attention to people entering the seminar. If the situation allows, I shake their hands, make eye contact and give them a friendly smile. It’s not rocket science, but it definitely helps to have a good start. I constantly show that I am listening and if I make notes I clearly indicate that I am listening even though my body language might express something different.

During the seminar I make sure I do not cross my arms and try to keep neutral or positive body language even if people express things I disagree with. I do give my opinion though.

I find it easy to engage with my customers.

Being a natural scientist myself definitely helps. They’re naturally curious, so you just need to spark their interest with whatever comes to your mind. Of course, they are critical people as well and they don’t like wasting time, so you need to give them practical tools they can use.

It does happen sometimes that I have a participant who is obviously less keen on the seminar. Lately I had a young lady who didn’t really want to come but her supervisor told her to. She was just sitting, annoyed and grumpy, in the corner to start with. I went to her during the break and asked why she wasn’t pleased and what I could change to make it better for all parties.

In 100% of cases, the person in question will instantly be more motivated, and often becomes the most motivated in the group. Essentially, if you give your audience the feeling of being heard they will stay (or become) attentive.

Being a successful small-talker is a valuable life skill.

The key is to always start with something positive! No one likes to be surrounded by negative people. A lot of people at conferences and trade events try to get a conversation started by complaining about the coffee…. an absolute no-go.

Giving a compliment as an icebreaker is always good: ‘I really liked your presentation’ or ‘That is a very informative poster you are presenting’.

Only start small talk when you are interested in the other person. Disinterest is very difficult to hide and you can make the other person feel uncomfortable. Share your opinions and interests. It’s impossible to keep a conversation going if you fail to share things yourself.

Tell people what you are looking for. Tell them what you need and who you would like to meet. People love helping other people, but they need to know how they can help you.

Many female scientists feel that men they supervise don't take them seriously.

A typical example I hear about is that the woman thinks she is giving negative feedback but the man hears something totally different. He does not change his behaviour or work style as he doesn’t realise there is anything wrong. She’s frustrated as she interprets it as him disobeying hierarchical structures. Another common problem is the feeling women have of not being heard during meetings.

Get political messages across by conveying them through stories.

An article or presentation with dry facts can be good and rich in information, but you read it today and forget it tomorrow. It’s real-life engaging stories with emotions attached that people remember. That’s why I use stories during my seminars, speeches, as well as in the written texts I publish.

Real world role models and examples are powerful because it is easier to be inspired by someone else. But pure imitation doesn’t work. It would never be authentic if you tried to be a copy of someone else. So I guess the next step is to give it a personal touch and learn what feels comfortable for you.

Sometimes you have to shock your audience.

When I present, I normally start with either a question or a statement to catch my audience’s interest. One of my conference talks about the problems facing female scientists in Germany started with ‘I am Karin Bodewits. I hold a PhD in biochemistry and I have been sentenced to a 10 month old son’.

Of course that was meant to shock the audience, and it did. They all listened.

About the project

The Everyday Engagement project is a series of interviews exploring the ways people communicate and connect in day-to-day life.

We want to learn about the instinctive skills and insights used in different professions, especially from people who deal with a spectrum of human emotion.

If you’ve got a story to share please get in contact.

More in this series:

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