Have you ever been invited to a business networking meeting or luncheon, or thought about going to your chamber of commerce’s networking events, but decided not to because you never know what to say to get the conversation started?

I’ve been there – and here’s the simple trick I learned to help me feel comfortable with the cocktail party small talk. Most people who know me would not think of me as “shy” – and I’m not – most of the time. When it comes to “networking” though, I used to struggle with making small talk.

That is, until I learned the F. O. R. M. trick.

F. O. R. M. works great because it works as a memory tool for when you are in social situations and you need to get to know the person you are talking with, and you need that person to remember you – and your business. Instead of talking about the weather, use FORM to make your conversation count.

F. O. R. M. stands for Family, Occupation, Recreation and Message – four areas you can use as conversation helpers in just about any social situation.

Family – asking whether they live around the area, if they are originally from the area or have moved there recently, if they have a family – all of these are great conversation starters. This gets the person talking about themselves and gives you a chance to learn about them.

Occupation – what do you do for a living? When they tell you what they do, you have a great opportunity to ask them about their job – if it’s in an industry you are familiar with you can comment about how competitive it is, or how challenging. If you are unfamiliar with their industry, here’s your chance to learn about it.

When they ask what you do, have your ’30 second elevator speech” ready. This is a description of your business that you can say in just a couple of sentences that articulates what it is that you do.

For instance, for my business I would say that “I help small to medium sized business owners market their brick-and-mortar businesses on the Internet, finding new local customers, increasing their sales and growing their businesses. ”

Recreation – this one’s easy! What do you do for fun? If they participate in a sport or hobby that you enjoy as well, you can swap stories and really build a memorable relationship with the person.

For instance, if I meet someone and they tell me that they love to travel – then I can talk to them for hours, learning about the places they’ve visited. I can also share with them my passion for photography and how my camera has gotten me into any interesting adventures while we’ve been on the road.

Message – when you feel the conversation winding down, or you need to move on to meet other people in the group, have your “message” that you need this person to remember about you ready to go. It’s something like your elevator speech, but much more personal to the individual you are talking to.

For me, my message is simple. “It was great to meet you, Bob. If you ever need help marketing your business online – or you run into someone who does – you know who to call. ”

If your business is selling plumbing supplies, just change it up a bit: “It was great to meet you, Bob. If you ever need a new faucet, I’m your guy!”

Of course, it’s implied that when they give you their card, you will refer business to them as well – and you certainly should. Rising tides raise all ships, and the more referrals you can send to others, the more they are likely to send to you as well.

You can skip any of the first 3 steps, or cover them in a different order – but your message is key. First and foremost, you need to build a relationship with the person you are talking with, and you start to do that with the first 3 questions. Your message that you give them as you get ready to leave helps them remember who you are and what you do – which is an incredibly powerful way to use networking to grow your referrals and your customer base.

Give F. O. R. M. a try the next time you are stuck for a conversation starter, and watch your network – and your customer base – grow as a result.