Keeping Small Talk Small
Posted by Anni M.
My mother is a champion small talker. She can make anyone feel comfortable—the mailman, a barista, the kid selling Girl Scout cookies, and her college students. She’s a professor. I don’t know if she learned the skill at work or if it’s something she’s always been able to do, but it really paves the way for her. She’s gotten out of speeding tickets, convinced a contractor to give her a quote far below the cost of materials, and managed to get in to see the Superbowl with no tickets. She’s a phenomenon! There is nothing conniving or manipulative in what she does. She’s just a kind, open person with a gift. People feel comfortable and safe around her. They want to make her life better. Small talk is a powerful tool. It breaks the ice, eases tensions, and gives people a chance to get used to simple communicating before things get more complicated. In business, cleverly crafted small talk can open doors. It ingratiates clients, softens strict managers, and makes new employees feel like part of the team. But like anything, you can overdo it.
A good small talk conversationalist is well versed in a wide range of topics. He can talk about movies, art, sports, and politics (though, beware of talking politics in the office, that’s never a good idea.) It’s important to exude confidence, the person you’re talking to won’t be comfortable if you’re nervous, but don’t go crazy. Over confidence is just as bad as nervousness. You need to strike a balance—be sure of yourself but be a good listener. Offer information about your interests but ask plenty of questions. If you can get your conversation partner talking about herself, you’re on the right track.
Small talk should never get in the way of doing business. When you get on a roll it’s easy to just keep rolling. Sometimes conversations get away from us and it’s our job to reel them back in. I will always remember a particularly unsuccessful small talk incident I experienced on the train. I was talking with an older woman about her son and she took the opportunity to walk me through all the ways in which he’d disappointed her. Sometimes the person you’re talking to will have an agenda of their own. It’s important to be able to disengage. I know my mother would have handled that situation beautifully. I tried to be polite but firm, to end the conversation amicably. But in the end I had to pretend I had a phone call and then pretend to talk until my stop.
Hopefully, in a business context, your colleagues won’t be waxing on about their personal relationships. Just remember where you are and why you’re there. If you’ve established a rapport through conversation, it shouldn’t be too difficult to steer the conversation back to business. Keep it light, friendly, and fun and practice as much as possible. Conversation is an art with infinite room for improvement.
As a Creative Communications Strategist, Victoria is known for her electrifying Keynote Performances™ and the transformational workshops and coaching sessions she creates for elite executives, high performing teams, thought leaders and entrepreneurs..