Editor's Note: Frank is an expert in the art of networking and creating lasting business relationships. Check out the Ask the Expert interview with him where he shares even more tips on mastering the art of small talk at any event big or small. There are a lot of industry events coming up this spring, and these tips could come in pretty handy!
Let’s face it: “small talk” has a bad reputation. Far too often people see it as idle chitchat that has no productive value in the professional world.
Understand this - your personal and professional worlds are formed and held firmly together by networking. And “small talk” plays a big part in successful networking. Remember, in networking you are creating a series of relationships that, in the end, will become a network that will help you. Thus, in order to build a strong network of contacts who are both willing and able to refer clients to you, they need to know, like, and trust you.
How does this all relate to “small talk”? Think about it. What did you think the last time someone you just met launched right into business? “Who does your printing? Are you happy? I can do better? Give me a chance. Throw me some business? Well, why not?”
UGH! right? But if the person had led with a bit of "small talk," you'd eventually be more open to talking business.
This all makes sense and yet there is still apprehension towards “small talk”. That apprehension boils down to one thing: FEAR. Most people fear they don't having enough interesting things to say to carry a meaningful conversation. Know this: “Small talk” is not about YOU finding something interesting to say. Rather, it's about getting the other person talking and you being interested in what THEY have to say.
Easier said than done? No, this is easily said and done.
Step 1: Come prepared with a series of open-ended questions and ask them. “Isn’t this weather crazy?” will not cut it but “How does this crazy affect you?” just might.
Step 2: As the person talks, take an interest in what they have to say. They'll think you're great. It's only human nature. Who doesn't love attention, right?
Step 3: Summarize what you have heard and then share a little about the subject as it relates to you. If you’re speaking with someone who loves to water ski, say, “So, as an avid water skier all this hot weather is great but it’s killing my golf game.”
Finally (just like the instruction on the shampoo bottle - lather, rinse, and repeat), ask another question, perhaps related to the first question or another tangent you would like to explore based on what you’ve already heard. For example, “So, if you enjoy water sports, what do you do to occupy yourself when it is too cold to take to the lake?”
This may have you wondering, “So, what are the best questions to ask?” Well, that depends on who you are asking questions of. There is no magic answer. Planning, however, is paramount. You should have questions in mind before you arrive.
While "small talk" is nice, you don't want to be in it forever. Eventually you want to transition to business. After all, you have bills to pay. So some time into your exchange, there will be a lull. Use this moment to get at a more meaty discussion on business (whatever that might be).
Returning to our example, here might be a good segue ... “Well, water skiing is likely not cheap ... So what do you do professionally to pay for it?”
Do not try to steer them or pitch them. For example you shouldn't go with, “Speaking of water, if your basement flooded, who would you call?"
Again, UGH! Keep the tone light and the probing to a minimum. If you do this right, you will have lots of opportunity in the future.
After the professional conversation has run its course, touch back on something related to your “small talk” conversation. Returning to the 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.”
This demonstrates that you were listening. More subtly, however, you are reflecting back to a part of the conversation when they likely delighted in your interest in them.
Whatever the case, do not churn away the entire event in a single conversation. And, you don't need to engage in a dozen different conversations over the course of an hour. Two or three is plenty.
Given that, you should develop some sincere ways of moving on, such as:
- "Thanks for your time. I told myself I would meet three interesting people at this event. Thanks for being the first. I have two more to go."
- “There is someone over there that I need to connect with.”
- “Is there anyone here in particular you would like to meet? I would be glad to introduce you.”
One final thought – here are three easy ways for you to get more comfortable and skilled at making “small talk”:
- Think About It - When you have some idle time, work through in your mind how you envision your “small talk” going. Review your questions in your mind. See yourself listening, summarizing, and sharing.
- Listen To It - “Small talk” is all around you, everyday. Listen to it, especially those who are good at it. Notice 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 In It - Take every opportunity to engage in “small talk.” 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 with it.
See, "small talk" is easily said and done. Generate your questions, follow the plan, and commit to improving at it. In time, you will not only become great at it, but you will really start to enjoy it, as well as derive lots of great benefits from it.