Communication: Make Small Talk Big Talk

Sections of this topic

    Do you find yourself tongue tied or feeling awkward in “small talk” situations like networking events, cocktail hours or meeting where you know no one?

    Most of us do – even extroverts like me. So don’t despair! Here are a few ninja skills to help you get over the “I don’t know what to say or do”.

    1. Make the first move .
    Hand out, smile on, greeting ready. When you make the first move, you create some energy and put yourself in a confident position. It takes a little practice if you are uncomfortable doing it, but if you get good at it, then you start the conversation stronger and it makes small talk a little easier.

    2. Find common ground fast.
    Common ground is some point of life intersection we seek with people we meet for the first time. Geography, education, hobbies, children, sport teams and many others make up the general opening topics of conversation. This is how we connect with people we do not know. If you have nothing in common, then don’t feel bad about it. They know it too. Make your gracious exit.

    3. Make an impression, but don’t leave a mark.
    If you let them speak 70% of the time, then you will be thought of as a courteous person good at conversation. The problem is people tend go to opposite ends of the spectrum of word volume when they are nervous — too much or too little. If you want to make an impression, strive for the middle through questions and comments.

    4. Have three good questions at the ready.
    You have probably heard that people like to talk about themselves. So instead of worrying about what you will say to others about yourself, focus instead on finding out about the other person or the people in the group. Here are three categories of questions that will activate a conversation.

    • Conversation starters: “What do you do? What area of______do you work in? or What made you decide to come to this event or what did you think of the presentation?”
    • Observations of change: Ask the person what changes they have seen in a particular area of business, sports, movies or some other topic over the past year. This creates a conversation rather than an interrogation with monosyllabic answers.
    • Future predictions: Ask the person what they believe will happen in the next year in a particular topic. Sports is usually safe and politics usually is risky. But it really depends on the event and group. The point is to create dialogue and rapport – not disagreement or rancor.

    5. Plan your exit.
    At a lull in the conversation when it is clear that the topics are exhausted, decide if you want to continue the relationship. If not, put out your hand and say, “It was a pleasure spending a few moments with you, I hope to see you again soon.”Then you simply move on in the room to other people. Or if you do, conclude with what you’re going to do next such as “I‘ll send you the article we’ve been talking about” or “Let’s set up a time when we can get together to talk further.”

    Career Success Tip:

    In spite of seeming to have little useful purpose, small talk serves many functions. It helps develop positive relationships between friends, work colleagues and new acquaintances. It also paves the way before engaging in more functional topics of conversation with others. Therefore, having skills for small talk will give you more confidence and get you through the discomfort. Also see Smart Networking and What’s Your Communication IQ?

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    • Copyright © 2012 Marcia Zidle career and leadership coach.