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Hint: Don’t even think about pitching to Bill Gates

There are a number of networking situations that feel kind of uncomfortable, but this spot—the elevator—is right up at the top of the list. You get into the elevator, you are forced to stand closer to people than most of us like, and then what? The easy way out is to look at your phone or stare at the digital readout of the floors. Or there’s always “shoe gazing”.

If you travel to your office via an elevator this scenario happens approximately 240 days a year. Multiply it by the times you travel up and down throughout the day and that’s a lot of elevator rides—many of them done in awkward silence. Here are some ideas to stimulate small talk on those rides.

1. Think about your fellow riders as a network you’d be interested in

Most of your fellow riders probably work in that building. Perhaps you work for the same company but on different floors. You probably have something in common. These are colleagues who would be worthwhile meeting. Alternatively the people in the elevator are likely other business people. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, says, “if you are looking for opportunities, you are really looking for people.” The elevator is full of people.

2. Wipe the elevator pitch idea from your brain

“What if you get in the elevator with Bill Gates, how would you pitch your idea?” Someone, get rid of this sentence, please! We think “the elevator pitch” is one of the reasons people don’t talk in elevators. There’s a subliminal association between elevators and selling. The reasons to chat with someone in an elevator are the silence feels awkward and by talking you can create a good vibe. Plus, you might make a cool connection.

3. Do it before the ding

The sooner you can say something to the other person, the better. If you are both waiting for the elevator seize the moment and say “Hi” or “Good morning.” If there’s time before the elevator arrives, talk about something. It can be the weather, the traffic, the news, et cetera. If you seem to be getting a friendly vibe you can say, “What kind of day are you going to have?” This usually elicits a positive response such as, “I’m going to have a great day.” Not many people tell you that they are planning to have a crappy day.

4. Don’t be too fancy for small talk

If there are people already in the elevator, acknowledge them with a communal “Hello” as you enter. Then try and engage with a little small talk about something that relates to that day or the day before. If you celebrate rather than denigrate small talk, you’ll be able to get those tough ice-breaker sentences out of your mouth. An article by David Berry in the National Post titled “Go ahead, talk about the weather—people who don't like small talk are the worst ones at the party,” makes the point that some people think they are too good to engage in small talk. He says that people “who have quite a bit of their self-worth tied up in appearing enlightened” have a hard time with small talk. Small talk is a talent; embrace it.

5. When you are totally stumped for things to say

There are times when you are in an elevator and no matter how hard you try you just can’t come up with a way to start a conversation. Whether the non-verbal barriers of the other person are just too high to climb or you are stumped for a topic, there is one last opportunity. When this happens to us we don’t sweat it because we know that when that person exits we will smile and say, “Have a nice day.” We always get a response back in kind, or a little smile.

6. If you see a regular rider, acknowledge them

Most of us have a tendency to be indifferent to others as we go about our daily life. By being more aware of your fellow riders, you may realize that there are people whom you see quite frequently on your travels up and down. Acknowledge them. “Nice to see you again.” “We meet again!” And if there’s someone who regularly takes the elevator when you do, put out your hand and say, “We’ve been travelling up and down for the last couple of years—let me introduce myself.”

7. Lead “The Elevator Challenge”

As a leader, make it a habit of talking to the other people in the elevator. If you do it, others will give themselves permission to do the same. Create a 30-Day Elevator Challenge and have your team share their elevator stories of as part of your weekly meetings. 

Yes, you can change the dynamic of those hundreds of elevator rides in your building.

Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, Judy Thomson and Darcy Rezac, principals of Shepa Learning Company, are keynote speakers and authors of “Work the Pond! Use the Power of Positive Networking to Leap Forward in Work and Life” (Penguin/Prentice Hall). They teach the skills of networking and communication to corporate clients, universities and business associations. Please sign up for their free weekly networking tip, it’s always under 200 words.