Monday, February 6, 2012

Mastering the Art of Small Talk: Let’s Get Personable!

Perhaps you are wondering why is small talk a timely topic? One reason could be the increase in the number of people who choose to communicate virtually rather than have face-to-face conversations.  Although electronic communication has many positives, it can also have a negative affect on one’s ability to hone basic interpersonal skills. 

Writer, historian and French philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known by the pen name, Voltaire” says, “One only speaks badly when one has nothing to say.” Therefore, make sure you have something to say. 

Small talk is a gateway to developing new relationships as well as maintaining established relationships. It is a skill and like any other skill, it can be learned.   When you master the art of small talk, you will become more confident and appear more professional. For tips on successful schmoozing, please read on:

1. Preparation is critical to your success - As you prepare to attend a function, you will have to identify things to talk about.
  • Topics of conversation for the small talk novice:
    • Say something that relates to the common moment, the venue or event: the food, the event’s theme, the parking or traffic, the host, etc.
    • Read the paper either off-line or on-line so you know what’s going on in your community, the country and the world.  Places that you have visited, or want to visit are also ‘safe’ topics of conversation.
    • Ask questions, but be aware that some questions are inappropriate, contrived and cheesy. Remember that if the question doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.  Safe topics include the following:
        • Favourite vacation spots
        • Places they would like to visit
        • Recent concerts, events or plays they may have attended
        • Favourite type of food or restaurant
  • Topics of conversation for the small talk expert:
    • 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.
    • Superlative comparisons: Ask questions with the words "best", "worst", "most" and "least" in them. Through these questions, you get a comparative conversation with some intensity and passion in it. You may not like the answers you get, but you will get some engagement and increase the interest.
    • Future predictions: Ask the person what they believe will happen in the next year in a particular topic. Sports is always safe and politics usually risky. However, that doesn't mean that you should stay away from one and favour the other. The point is to create dialogue, and speculation about the future does just that.
2. Smile and search for individuals who seem receptive - Whenever you enter a room, look for people who are already talking or appear as though they want to talk. These folks are usually the easiest ones to approach because they require little prodding to engage in conversation.  Casual eye contact and a warm, friendly smile demonstrate your interest and desire to communicate. Eye contact for five to ten seconds indicates curiosity and is generally considered friendly. Take care not to stare at another person too intensely because this can make him or her feel uncomfortable. When the other person returns the eye contact, smile back. At that point you have made a connection and transmitted the message that you want to have a conversation.

3. Always be the first to say, “Hello” and offer to shake hands.  [If you are a ‘gremaphobe’, hold things in your hands or extend a fist rather than an open hand.] -  When you make the first move, you create energy and show confidence.  Start conversations with open-ended questions.  An open-ended question is one where the answer cannot be, “Yes” or “No”.

4. Handle introductions & reintroductions - If you are a serial networker, it is likely that you will recognize some of the same faces, but you might not remember their name.  In this case, honesty is the best policy.  Take the time to reintroduce yourself by using your name and remind them of one of the following:
  • Where you may have met them before
  • What you do for a living
  • People you know that you may have in common
5. Start a conversation.  It is important that you give the person you are meeting a conversation starter of some kind.  You can either offer some tidbit of information about yourself, e.g., what you do for a living, or, perhaps that you are an avid fan of the local sports team.  The aim here is to find common ground.   

6. Act like a host - Take your time during the introductions.  Make an effort to remember their name and use it, or any other information that person has shared with you to introduce them to someone else in the room.

7. Stay focussed - Maintain eye contact with your conversation partner.  Listen actively to what they are saying and ask questions.  Nothing will destroy a conversation faster than when the person you are chatting with looks over your shoulder to make eye contact with someone else.

8. Be aware of business card exchange etiquette  - Recognize that many people view the exchange of business cards as a sign of respect and the ritual involved with the exchange of business cards is an extension of that respect.  Business cards should be treated in the same manner as you would treat a gift.  Business cards should be handed out with both hands, so that the person who is receiving the card can read it.  If you are the one who is receiving the card, take the card in both hands and read it.  Reading the card serves 2 purposes:
a] It will help you remember the person’s name
b] It will tell you the person’s job title [and provide you with an opportunity to make inquiries about the industry or company wherein they work].  "I see that you work in the ______ industry. What is your biggest challenge?”
Once you have read the card, put it away in a safe place.  Resist the urge to write some sort of ‘reminder’ about the person on the card as some people will view this action as extremely disrespectful.

9. Know that body language speak volumes - If you look uncomfortable when speaking to others, it makes them feel uncomfortable as well.  Always strive to act confident and comfortable, even if you are not.

10. Wait for an opening - Before entering a conversation that is already in progress, observe and listen.  Know that unsuited or ill-timed remarks will only serve to squash the dynamics of the conversation and make you look appear rude and awkward.
Listen more than talk - If you are talking half the time, the person with whom you are speaking will think you are monopolizing the conversation even though it is an inaccurate impression.  If you let them speak 70% of the time, you will be thought of as a courteous person who is good at the art of conversation.

11. Have an exit strategy There are many ways to leave a conversation.  The easiesr is to wait for a lull in the conversation and it has become clear that the common topics of converation have been exhausted.  Once this happens, put out your hand and say, "It was a pleasure talking with you. I hope to see you again soon." Then move on to chat with other people in the room.
Your objective in all encounters should be to make a good impression and leave people wanting more.  Be bright, be brief and say, “Bye bye.” Remember, most people are nice and would welcome your pleasant conversation. 

  • Make sure people are interested in a topic before talking too much about it.
  • Stick to upbeat subjects.
  • Balance the amount of talking and listening.
  • Find out what other people enjoy discussing.
  • Be willing to talk about subjects that you know little about.
  • Reintroduce yourself to an old acquaintance.
  • Indulge in endless shop talk or industry gossip when non-industry people are Present.
  • Gossip about the other guests.
  • Stay in one area or speak only to one person.
  • Look over a person's shoulder as you talk to him or her.
  • Make negative snap judgments about the people you meet.
  • Expect other people to carry the conversation.
Now that you have been introduced to the basics of small talk, it’s time to put your OAR in the water.
  • Observe. Make an observation and comment upon it.
  • Ask questions.
  • Reveal something about yourself.
This OAR strategy is not just for networking events.  You can use it anywhere.  Use it with family and friends. Use it while standing in any line-up. Use it in the grocery store.  Use it while waiting for a meeting to begin. Use it after you introduce yourself to someone. Don’t wait for others to initiate a conversation. Be proactive, and take the initiative.  You will be glad you did.

Copyright © 2012, Career Matters. All Rights Reserved. Permission to Reprint: This article may be reprinted, provided it appears in its entirety with the following attribution: Copyright © 2012, Career Matters. Reprinted by permission of the author, Mary Salvino. “Career Matters” is a blog hosted by Mary Salvino, Senior Consultant for SMART Career that is dedicated to those who are seeking advice on managing their career and future job opportunities. We welcome readers to share their experiences, post their comments or ask questions about career related matters. This blog is also dedicated to those who stand a little taller each time they picked themselves up after failing and those who gained the wisdom and humility from those experiences to help others do the same. For any questions or comments that are better addressed privately, please feel free to e-mail Mary directly at