Frank Agin, founder and president of AmSpirit Business Connections and host of Networking Rx, draws a scientific study from the University of Opole (Poland) to illustrate the power of small talk and why it works.
“Small Talk” is an art. Like any art, you can improve how you do it through practice. Here are some ideas for becoming more proficient at small talk.
- THINK … On the way to the next event or when you have some idle time, work through in your mind how you envision your “small talk” going. Review the questions you will ask in your mind. See yourself listening, summarizing, and sharing.
- LISTEN … “Small talk” is all around you, every day. Listen to it, especially those who are good at it. See how they weave from one question to the next and how they transition to business, return to small talk and then exit the conversation.
- ENGAGE … Take every opportunity to engage in “small talk” When you are in line at the store check out. With a server in a restaurant. With the receptionist at your next appointment. You will find the more you engage in small talk, the more comfortable you get at it.
The most important thing you need to do to be good at “small talk” is develop an attitude of belief. Periodically, you need to tell yourself, “I can carry a conversation. I can. I am good at it. I enjoy it. I like how it lifts the spirits of others. And I love what it is doing for my networking. I can carry a conversation.”
Remember, small talk is the warm-up that leads to the work out. The workout is talking business. To make this happen, eventually you need to transition from small talk to real business.
When this moment comes, you will know. At some point in your exchange there will be a lull. Use this moment to get at a more meaty discussion on business (whatever that might be).
Be forewarned, however, this is not to suggest that you start to pitch them or set them up for a close. It merely suggests that once you have them comfortably engaged in conversation, you should ease into a more professional discussion of their business or your business.
For example, a nice segue might be, “Water skiing isn’t cheap! What do you do professionally to pay for it?”
Do not try to steer them. For example, a business coach, should not ask, “Do you use business coaches in your business?” A financial advisor, should not open with, “How is your 401K doing these days?” A promotional products person should not jump to “How do you use ad specialty items in your business?”
Do NOT push it. Keep the tone light and the sales probing to a minimum. If you do this right, you will have lots of opportunities to gather future business intelligence, pitch them, and close them. Remember, people do business with those they Know, Like & Trust.
Return To Small Talk
After the professional conversation has run its course but before the conversation ends, touch back on something related to your small talk conversation.
For example: “Great talking with you. Assuming, you don’t get laid up in the hospital skiing between now and then, I would enjoy continuing our conversation over a cup of coffee sometime.”
Why is this important? By returning to “small talk”, you have demonstrated that you were listening and that you remembered. More subtly, however, you are reflecting back to a part of the conversation when they likely delighted in your interest in them.
Great Questions To Ignite “Small Talk”
Small talk kick-starts the networking process. Small talk, however, is about getting the other person talking. This begs the question: What are good questions to ask in this process?
While there is no magic, planning is paramount. Be like an attorney – prepare your questions before you ask them. In other words, have a small handful of questions ready to go. Each of these relates to the person’s life professionally or personally … Or something about their past.
From there, allow the conversation to take itself wherever. A few of these questions could include…
- What do you do? How long have you been doing it? How did you become interested in that?
- What are some of the projects or assignments you are currently working on?
- Are you from this area?
- If yes – What part?
- If no – What brought you here?
- Outside of work, what occupies you? How did you become interested in that?
- What are some business or community organizations you are involved with?
These will give you a start. From here you might want to formulate your own series of questions. Again, there is no magic. It is simply a matter of planning for how you will get and keep them talking.
Tips For Making Small Talk
Here is an important thing to understand: “Small talk” is not about filling idle time with interesting things to say. Rather, “small talk” is about getting the OTHER person to fill idle time with things to say and you genuinely finding interest in it.
The key to success in “small talk” is having a simple, reliable game plan. Try this one:
Step One: Ask A Question … Now remember, the key is to get them talking, so you need to be ready with questions that are open-ended. “Isn’t this weather crazy?” will not cut it. “How does this crazy weather affect you?” just might.
Step Two: Listen … Really Listen … Take an interest in what they have to say, even if the subject is not particularly interesting to you. Why? First, you just might learn something, something that could help you or something that you can use to help them (which ultimately helps you).
Second (and this is counter-intuitive) if you take an interest in them and whatever they have to say, they will find you to be a very interesting person (and they will not know why). It is just human nature. People tend to like people who show a genuine interest in them.
Step Three: Summarize & Share … As a follow-up (to show you are really listening), summarize what you have heard (or at least do the best you can) and then share a little about the subject as it relates to you. “So, as an avid water skier all this hot weather is great but I find that it kills my golf game.”
Finally, just like the instruction on the shampoo bottle – lather, rinse, repeat – ask another question. Perhaps one that’s related to the first question or maybe some other tangent you would like to explore based on what they said in their answer. For example, “So, if hot weather is good, how do you occupy yourself when it is too cold to take to the lake?” Whatever, the case, keep them talking.
Why Is There An Apprehension Towards “Small Talk”?
For many, the thought of engaging in “small talk” can make them anxious. It comes down to one thing – FEAR. Fear of being rejected. Fear of having nothing to contribute. Fear of getting stumped (or running out of conversation). Fear of getting stuck in a conversation with, well, that stranger that Mom warned you about.
FEAR NOT! The strangers your mother warned you about are no longer interested. You have things to contribute and with a little planning and practice you will never get stumped (and if you do, there is a way out).
As for rejection, know this: Everyone has this fear. EVERYONE. Even the most well connected, confident person will tell you that deep down inside, they have this apprehension. If everyone has this fear, then everyone will welcome you coming up and jumping into conversation with them.
So make someone’s day. Engage in some “small talk” with them.
How Does “Small Talk” Create Networking Bonds?
Think about it. What did you do that last time you were at an event and someone started talking “Brass Tacks” ASAP. “Who does your printing? Are you happy? I can do better. Give me a chance. Throw me some business. Well, why not?”
It is through “small talk” that people gain an understanding of: Who you are … What interests you … How you spend your time. And you learn the same about them.
As an analogy, “small talk” is like the warm-up you do before you really get into the work out. It is the foundation of the KNOWING in “Know, Like & Trust”. It is also this small foundation upon which people gain a sense as to whether they LIKE you. In fact, social science and brain studies have shown that in the few minutes where chitchat is happening, people even start to formulate a sense as to whether or not they TRUST you, too.
Let’s face it … “small talk” has a bad reputation. It probably dates back to the continual chiding our mothers did relative to talking with strangers.
While her warnings were intended to protect us as children from those who would prey on our innocence, we are no longer kids. We are big boys and girls … We operate in the grown-up world where strangers become good friends, great clients and, even reliable vendors.
Even still, however, “small talk” gets a bad rap. Far too often people see it as idle chitchat that has no productive value in the professional world.
Understand this, our entire personal and professional worlds are formed and held firmly together by networking … And “small talk” has a big part in successful networking.
At a networking event, once you have exchanged names, conversation will likely ensue. Engage In It.
In so doing, do not start the conversation directly focused on business or professional aspects. That can be off-putting and serve to create an uncomfortable situation. Rather, engage in some small talk. Inquire as to the origin of their name. Ask them about their impressions on the event itself. Get them talking on anything other than business. This will serve to make the connection comfortable.
After a few or even several minutes small talk, segue over to more professional topics. Ask about their business. How long have they done it? What did they do before? How did they get started?
Once the professional discussion has run its course, segue back to small talk. You can reflect on something professional they said, and tie it back to something within small talk.
As you engage in conversation, be sure to listen to what they have to say. Focus on them, and not your watch, or who is coming through the door, or anything going on around you.
You should express a genuine interest in what they have to say, especially if it is a topic that you set in motion with one of your questions. To do this, face up to them, make eye contact, and:
• Make sounds and comments to indicate understanding (or simply nod your head) … “Oh, interesting.”
• Ask questions to clarify things … “Now, when you say [blank], what do you mean?
• Echo back what they have said in summary fashion … “So you basically got into business because …”
As they talk look for things you have in common, whether they are shared backgrounds, similar experiences, or other ways to relate to them. You can use these to interject or ask questions, as a means of keeping the conversation going.
Now clearly articulating WHO you are, WHAT you do and WHY you are uniquely qualified is nice. However, in a sense, it is like having a souped up car with no wheels. To complete your 30-second commercial, you need to clearly state WHAT it is you need.
I hear a lot of 30-second commercials and many of them have a weak finish. This is because they have a wimpy ASK or request. The best way to illustrate this is through an example … an example of what NOT to do. Do not make your HOW statement something like, “A good referral for me is someone in transition or not happy with the direction of their career.” Rather, here is a better example.
“If you know of someone in transition or not happy with the direction of their career please introduce me to them.”
The main difference between these two is that the second has a “call to action.” If you see or know of this, please send it my way … Or give me their number … Or invite them to my seminar.
The first example, “A good referral for me is someone in transition or not happy with the direction of their career” gives the same information, but it leaves someone wanting to say, “That’s nice.”
It is like my kids. They will say, “Dad, I am hungry.” And my response is, “Thanks. That is good to know.” They know now they need to make a Strong Definite Request. “Dad, can you cook me Mac-n-Cheese?” They are asking for action, which is far more powerful.