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Dread the office holiday party? Here's how to cope

(MoneyWatch) For some buttoned-up offices, the holiday party is the only official social event of the year. Whether you're trying to use the evening as a networking opportunity or you simply hate awkward encounters, these gatherings can be stressful, particularly if they're a once-a-year occurrence.

"To stave off that 'stage fright' (and avoid the foot-in-mouth syndrome that sometimes goes with cocktails and awkward social interactions), I recommend preparing some talking points," says Meryl Weinsaft Cooper, co-author of "Be Your Own Best Publicist: How To Use PR Techniques To Get Noticed, Hired and Rewarded at Work." Here are Weinsaft Cooper's top three tips:

Talk about them. Most people love to talk about themselves. Throw the attention on your co-workers by asking about their holiday plans, recent travels, hobbies or families. "Check around to see what co-workers and bosses are posting online. For example, perhaps someone posted pictures on Facebook from their trip to Chile. You can use that as a jumping off point for conversation to ask about their experiences, what made them choose the destination," says Weinsaft Cooper.

Read up on current events. You don't have to read the Wall Street Journal from cover to cover, but you should have a good, general grasp of current events, important sporting results and local news. Don't have time to read up? Just open Twitter. "It's truly a treasure trove of information in 140-character, bite-sized form. I recommend checking on trending topics, hashtags and other news stories that might be showing up on the site. From humor to current events, checking what people are talking about there can help give you a few conversation starters," says Weinsaft Cooper.

Talk about yourself. Preparing a personal elevator pitch -- a few succinct points about yourself -- can help protect you from an awkward silence. "Start by taking stock of some fun things you did in your personal life this year: Did you take a class? Did you read an interesting book or see an amazing movie? You can also think about some milestones from a professional perspective. Was there a big moment in the context of your company that you can revisit in a positive way?" notes Weinsaft Cooper.

Try these three talking points and you should be the star of your office soiree -- or at least escape without embarrassment.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Green Lane

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