Small talk might appear to be inconsequential and unimportant, but it's actually vital across all types of industries, businesses and networks. It helps to form a social cohesion that makes interaction possible and builds trust.
If you dismiss small talk, you risk appearing stilted, socially inept, unconfident and even untrustworthy. The good news is that these types of communication skills can be learned, as we'll show in this article, and will become much easier with practice.
- What Is Small Talk?
- How Does Business Small Talk Differ?
- Why Are Small Talk Skills Essential?
- Do’s and Don’ts
- Tips to Help Small Talk Flow More Smoothly
- Final Thoughts
- Further Reading
What Is Small Talk?
Small talk is the common term for a conversation about light and unimportant matters.
- It’s a friendly dialogue about a common topic, such as the weather.
- It's a way of conversing with someone you've only just met, are meeting for a short amount of time – at a conference, for example – or don't know very well.
- Small talk is vital for situations where silence would be awkward and uncomfortable, but where in-depth and personal conversations would be inappropriate.
How Does Business Small Talk Differ?
The ability to engage in small talk with clients is a key business skill.
Business small talk refers to small talk that is conducted in a business setting – such as in the empty moments before a meeting. It differs from small talk as there is often an agenda behind the chit-chat – this could be networking or finding out more about your clients.
It's also different as you'll frequently have the opportunity to prepare before attending a social event. For example, you can research key attendees using social networks such as LinkedIn. This will allow you to identify conversation topics based on interests or hobbies mentioned on their profile.
Remember to be subtle and appear interested without appearing creepy – don’t make it too obvious that you know information about clients you may have only just met.
Why Are Small Talk Skills Essential?
Small talk allows people to communicate in a friendly way without inadvertently offending anyone or getting too personal.
Having strong small talk skills can help you meet new people, form positive business relationships and open new career opportunities.
Most businesses expect their employees to have the skills needed to engage appropriately in small talk. Soft skills like these are often assessed at interview stage, and failure to demonstrate them could result in the job being offered to someone else.
Do’s and Don’ts
Many businesses and organisations have clear guidelines about subject matter that is not deemed appropriate or advisable for discussion in the workplace. It can be difficult to know what topics should be avoided, and there are many other unwritten rules of business communication.
If you are networking to sell a product or service , do not start a conversation with the hard sell. You will be more likely to form a positive relationship if you take the time to find out about the person, before getting down to business.
Many people find the whole concept of small talk confusing and rather nerve-wracking. To help you feel confident and prepared, here is a list of topics that are ideal and those that should be avoided.
Do Talk About:
- The weather – It's a cliché but people are generally happy to talk about the weather, even if it can seem rather mundane. Plus it's completely inoffensive and allows everyone to have something to say. Leading with a question is ideal as it naturally starts a conversation.
- Work – You could start by asking if they've been in their current position for long or how they got into their line of work. Always show an interest in the other person, ask questions rather than talking about yourself, and don't start with a business request or a hard sell.
- Travel – People love to talk about their vacation plans, where they have been and where they are planning to go . Show interest and the conversation should flow.
- Celebrity trivia – Reference to the latest must-see drama or reality show is a good way to start talking to people. These topics of conversation are sometimes referred to as 'water-cooler topics', since they are what people tend to talk about in the office while congregated around the water cooler.
- Nearby restaurants – Food is a fail-safe topic of conversation. Asking for recommendations for nearby restaurants, bars or street food is a great way to break the ice.
- Local news – Be aware of what's going on in your local neighbourhood – social media community groups are a great way of staying informed. Try things like, “What do you think about the schools closing because of the snow?” or “Did you hear about the new out-of-town development?” An advantage of this particular topic is that it makes you seem well informed and engaged in local matters.
- Something that just happened – A recent event is always a good conversation-starter, such as a talk you both recently attended. Remember to listen more than you speak.
- Money or anything financial – Talking about salaries, bonuses or anything financial is best avoided. A possible exception to the rule is property – in some circles, people are happy to discuss the property market and how much they paid for their recent house.
- Politics – This can be an exceptionally divisive topic. Steer clear or you run a high risk of upsetting or alienating at least one person in the room.
- Religion – Best avoided as it's a personal matter about which many people hold strong views.
- Sex – Usually inappropriate in most business settings – you don't want to find yourself on the receiving end of a complaint to HR.
- Life and death – Any recent bereavements, health scares or chronic problems are not appropriate small talk topics, however much they may be at the forefront of your mind. When you are in the presence of strangers, stay clear of topics that could potentially be upsetting.
- Appearance and/or age – Never make personal comments about someone's appearance. Even if you think you are being complimentary, it could make them feel uncomfortable and successful small talk is all about creating a relaxed atmosphere. Don't ask anyone's age either – this acan be a very sensitive topic.
- Personal comments – Don't badmouth others, especially in a business context. It can make you look untrustworthy, and could damage relationships further down the line.
Tips to Help Small Talk Flow More Smoothly
1. Open-Ended Questions
These invite the respondent to divulge information and keep the conversation flowing. An example could be, “What do you think about the proposed merger?”
2. Flattering People
A small compliment can help you to create a good impression and oil the wheels of social contact. Remember not to say anything personal about their appearance and to keep your remarks professional. Maybe they were the keynote speaker at a conference and you really enjoyed their speech?
3. Take Note of Your Body Language
Make plenty of eye contact throughout the conversation, smile and look interested. Mirror the body language of the other person, although don't make it too obvious. Try not to fidget or look nervous. If you are standing, try to keep both feet on the floor.
4. Prepare Before the Event
If you know you have an important meeting coming up and want to make a good impression, a bit of preparation helps. Before the event, think of some conversation starters. Perhaps you could research some of the key people and find out their interests and hobbies.
You don't have to pretend to be something you're not – that would be disastrous – but pragmatically raising topics that you are confident will generate a good response is always a canny move.
5. Greet People Appropriately
A kiss on the cheek? Or a kiss on both? It's a universal dilemma. In business, a firm handshake is a safe bet unless you are meeting international clients. If you are unsure, let the other person make the first move and then respond appropriately.
6. Remember Names
It's easy to miss someone’s name during an introduction, especially if you are nervous.
Sometimes name tags are used to help people network, with that person's role and company stated. If they're not used, try to say someone's name a couple of times in the conversation shortly after you have been introduced, to help remember it.
If someone has an unusual name that you think you might have misheard, don't brush past it – check that you heard it correctly.
7. Dealing with Silences
Not all silences are bad; sometimes lulls in conversation just indicate that a person is considering what to say next or is thinking about what you have told them.
Talking for the sake of it will not make a good impression. If you feel like the silences are prolonged, then try to change the topic of conversation or ask some questions.
8. Ending the Conversation
If the conversation is naturally drying up and you are running out of the aforementioned topics, thenwrap it up. It is perfectly acceptable to network with multiple people over the course of a night, and most people will understand your moving on. Remember never to make someone feel like they are uninteresting, or that you have more important things to do elsewhere.
To gently bring the conversation to a close, excuse yourself politely. You could say “I need to grab some food from the buffet before it all disappears”, for example. Leave the conversation gracefully by mentioning something that shows you listened and appreciated the chat, such as “I really enjoyed hearing about your holiday to Barbados – especially as we are planning to go there soon ourselves.”
Don't forget the whole point of small talk in a business context is to smooth the way for deeper and more meaningful conversations at a later time. Small talk may be the first rung on the ladder, but it is an absolutely essential first step.
Follow our tips – stick to inoffensive and safe topics, listen to the other person's responses and remember their name, and end conversations politely.
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