Don’t Sweat the Small Talk!


Don’t Sweat the Smalltalk! 

  • Are you the type of person who simply hates small talk and just gets straight to the point?
  • Are you the type of person who hates meeting new people because you have to make idle chit chat?
  • Do you dread having to make small talk with people you will probably never meet again or even care to meet again?
  • Do you find yourself ‘drying up’ at business functions, unable to keep a conversation going then making an excuse to move on?
  • Are you one of those people who just hates talking to people, but your job demands you do?

If your answer is ‘Yes’ to any of these then don’t worry, nobody is listening anyway!! I’m kidding. Apparently Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the USA believed that most people were dreadful listeners especially when it came to small talk. To generally amuse himself he would greet guests with “I murdered my grandmother this morning.”  The usual response was a puzzled yet polite nod of approval.  However, on one occasion a guest impressed him when he smiled and responded to this statement by saying “I’m sure she had it coming.”

What are we talking about again?

OK let’s be clear as to what we are talking about.  This is not about deep and meaningful conversations, this is about the chitchat, the small talk, the icebreakers, the getting to know you’s and the initial rapport building. You might not like it, or be particularly skilled at it, but often it is what makes the all important ‘first impression’ so getting it right does have a value, especially in business.

If you are particularly ‘introverted’ then this can be agonizing for you, you may find yourself looking on enviously at the more ‘extroverted’ people in a room, effortlessly getting along with people, smiling and gesturing, tossing their hair around, some a bit flirty, holding eye contact looking positively radiant in the glow of stimulating conversation that is and has been creatively and involvingly cultivated with a few well placed words. Bastards. How do they do it? You might think this all comes naturally to them, in some cases it actually doesn’t.  In fact some of these people are acting, putting on a front and inside just like you they are aching to get away, but they have a secret. They rehearse.

It is all in the Planning.

Did you ever see The Devil Wears Prada? There is that party scene where Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is flanked by her two assistants, feeding her information just before she meets her guests. The assistants have had to learn the guest list. Who is married to who, who is working where, who is sleeping with someone else, all the right stuff to start some small talk, well maybe not the last one.  The point is they have rehearsed, and so should you. I suppose you would not expect an athlete not to warm up before a big event would you?  The same applies, you should look to warm yourself up before hand, do a bit of research and get yourself into the zone.

Some warm-up Pointers for the Chat-Bank!

Even if you are proficient at starting conversations, you might find this of use.

  1. Listen to the news, read the paper, watch E! Generally brush up on the top things going on right now in the media and the world. If a celebrity has just done something crazy or amazing pop it into the ‘chat bank’ for withdraw later.
  2. When someone tells you something about themselves then ask the magical question “why?” Be inquisitive but not an inquisitor, people like to talk about themselves and can really get going when prompted, so if this takes the heat off of you then great.  You might find after they have talked about themselves for so long and moved on, that they describe you as the most interesting person, even though you have not said a word. Funny that.
  3. Think of something you would like help with. These functions can be really useful as problem solving resource centres, so perhaps when you are speaking to someone you have done a bit of research on, ask them for their help, their opinion or their insight on who you should talk to, what to find out etc.
  4. Think of any upcoming events that might be taking place, that people might be either attending or thinking of attending. Use this as a conversation opener.
  5. Check the list of people attending the same event and mention these other people to the person you are speaking to at the time. You may find you have people in common and it makes you look ‘in the know’ sparking the person you are talking to into asking you everything I have mentioned in point 3!

When you meet someone, maybe try this…

  1. Ask them how they know the host, where they have come from, what their interest in the event is, ask about their journey to the event, and if you are really stuck, the weather. As I write this the rain is almost biblical here and people are talking endlessly about it.
  2. When the person answers, listen to the answer, smile and nod, agree and use phrases like “that is interesting”, “tell me more”, and “how did that come about?”
  3. Link subjects with your own experience, stimulating a see saw effect to the conversation.
  4. Try to use questions that are not only open ended (who, what, why, when where and how) but also go a bit deeper with “tell me about”, “describe to me”, “illustrate to me” or “talk to me about”.
  5. When you are told the persons name, look them in the eye and say their name back to them, that way it reinforces your chance of remembering it for future reference. E.g. “It is good to meet you Stephanie, how are you?”

When you are actually talking you might want to avoid things like this…

  1. Talking too much about yourself, excessive use of “I” and “My” and “Me” is annoying at best. People might look like they are smiling and agreeing, but look closely, their smile doesn’t quite reach their eyes and inside they are screaming at you to shut the fuck up.
  2. It is worth repeating, talking too much about yourself is annoying and boring.
  3. Avoid excessive use of opinions, and opinions stated as facts make you just sound like a bore, really you do.
  4. Avoid subjects like personal health or family issues, crime (especially the messy type!), War, religion, sex and/or politics.
  5. Avoid endless talk about work or your industry; think outside of that, you will come across as richer and more balanced.

When you are talking to someone new for the first time, try to reinforce the things you both like. It sounds obvious but often this can get overlooked.  So saying something like “it is so good to meet another person who shares the same interest” or “it is rare to meet a kindred spirit”, that type of thing will help to cement a bond and potentially create a bridge between yourself what could be just a contact, to an acquaintance into becoming a business contact or even a friend.

Some natural Links to Other Areas that can help.

Quite often, people who are technically brilliant and very comfortable in their comfort zone only struggle with the ‘small talk’ element.  Once they are through this they can manage really quite well.  However, other people find the whole ‘communication thing’ a challenge, and this has direct links with ‘confidence’ and ‘assertiveness’.  I have other blogs here that can help with these areas, but it is worth remembering that generally speaking the subject of assertiveness and confidence is too big, there is a specific area such as small-talk that is the main issue.  In future blogs I will look to uncover some of these areas and offer tips and tactics to get over some of the more tricky points.

The last word on ‘small- talk’.

Whilst you may not like engaging in small talk or not feel confident in getting things going, it is worth remembering that it does have a real value. The key benefits include:

  • Creating a sense of rapport between people that goes above and beyond the technical conversation.
  • It creates a friendly and welcoming atmosphere for others joining a room or group, that person could well be you.
  • It allows for the informal exchange of really quite basic but essential information.
  • Small talks allows you to filter people who are more or less relevant to the current situation at hand.

If there was one tip more than anything else to remember and take away from this blog on how to conduct small talk it is to rehearse, research and practice before entering the situation. It can make all the difference. Now go out into the world and talk to someone.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Sweat the Small Talk!

  1. Simon, such a great article, I love the reference to the movie The Devil Wears Prada, such a great observation, keeping conversation light hearted and interesting is the key, but I realise some people are just not good at small talk – or don’t realise the importance of it, so thanks for the advice.

    1. Thank you so much, people often say things like ‘the art of good conversation’ I don’t believe it is an art, it is about paying attention, being interested and taking time to listen, acknowledge and engage with others.

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