Making a Big Deal Out of Small Talk

Not all speech is created equally. Keynote addresses, press conferences, sermons, lectures, gossip—they definitely do not evoke the same response.

While the higher profile forms of communication make all the headlines, don’t underestimate the potential of small talk. Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it can’t have big impact. More and more, those seemingly insignificant discussions on golf courses, in cafeterias and around copy machines are making their way into boardrooms and executive suites.

Small talk can be a simple yet effective way of building rapport and trust with coworkers—as well as clients, prospects and the media—and it can reap big rewards for those who know how to seize the opportunity. What you say when you’re “just standing around” may be the most important thing you articulate all day, which is why you should consider this tips before you talk.

Choose the Right Person

Not everyone is a candidate for small talk. Some people dislike any involvement or contact with others at all. They see it not as an opportunity for rapport building, but as an infringement and inconvenience. Engaging them may not only irritate them but cause future complications for you.

Others may welcome an idle word or two, seeing conversation as a way of making business and the office more personal. Fellow attendees at a press briefing, collaborators on a project or colleagues at a cocktail party can all make good small talk companions.

Choosing the right person can mean the difference between five wasted minutes and a partnership that could last years. Knowing whom to approach isn’t difficult; simply read the body-language signals and respect their wishes.   

Choose the Right Time

When thinking of entering into small talk, be sensitive to the other person’s mood and circumstances. What may be a coffee break for you may be a pressing deadline for someone else. On an airplane, when your seatmate is obviously preoccupied, leave him or her alone. Neither would you try to engage someone in small talk when the person is dashing down the hallway to make a meeting. And if the CEO has unexpectedly called you in for a “little chat,” this is neither the time nor the place to take the lead. Let him or her dictate the topic and pace with which you get down to business.

Choose the Tight Tidbit

Have an effective elevator speech (or several, depending on what you’re wanting to emphasize) on the tip of your tongue so when the moment’s right.   An effective elevator speech either confirms or destroys your image––not to mention affects your results.  It should be brief (15-30 seconds), pithy, quotable, listener-focused and, most important, appear to be off the cuff.

1. Start with a benefit.  At Booher Consultants, we offer several different communication training programs, so our “benefit” statements change. But here’s one example:  "We help salespeople really engage their buyers when they deliver a sales presentation rather than just do an information dump as they sometimes have a tendency to do."

2. Add a credibility builder.   Example:  "Our clients, typically consultants at Fortune 500 companies, tell us that's one of the hardest things to accomplish while still providing sound technical information—particularly when the decision makers are always in a hurry."

3. End with an open question.  Example:  "How difficult do you or your people find that to do?"   This last step in the elevator speech is the most important; in fact, it’s the key difference between a sales pitch on the golf course and engaging your listener in small talk that can pay off in a big way later on. 

Ending with a question takes the pressure off the other person to respond to you about your business and focuses on him or her.  The other person can go in any direction from that point:  From “Oh, our people do that pretty well actually”  to “Most salespeople I know could use some help with that for sure” to “Our salespeople could sure use some help with that.  You’re going to have to call me sometime to give me more information about how you do that.”

Mission accomplished.

Choose the Right Medium

If timing is everything, then selecting the right medium ranks a close second. Each means of communication, be it in person or via text-messaging or social networking sites, has its own strengths and weaknesses. Marshall McLuhan, the mass media guru of the ‘60s, contended that the medium was the message—that each had its own dynamics and, therefore, effects. Knowing the uniqueness of each will help you use them more effectively.
The greatest danger regarding media involves those that aren’t face to face.  Since you’re not present to read their signals or note their feedback, you have no way to gauge their interest. Know where you’re going with the contact and be prepared to get there. If the other person sends you a cue that small talk is in order, you can always change course and take on a lighter mood. Don’t assume that people expect or welcome a little chitchat before you begin your business “conversation.”
Small talk means having a little loose change in your pocket. Like quarters in a vending machine or dollars at a tollbooth, it’ll come in handy when you least expect it. The trick is knowing when to jingle it, spend it or save it.

Author of 44 books, Dianna Booher works with organizations and individuals to increase their productivity and improve their effectiveness through better communication: oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational. Her latest books: Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar: 101 Fast and Easy Ways to Correct the Most Common Errors, The Voice of Authority: 10 Communication Strategies Every Leader Needs to Know, and Speak with Confidence (all from McGraw-Hill). or 800-342-6621.

  • Janelle Hail

    Thank you, Dianna, for your insightful tips. From a CEO’s perspective, I appreciate it when people value my time and not try to sway me with persuasive sales techniques. I am involved with decision making every day, so clear, precise communication gets my attention faster than rambling, vague rhetoric. Keep up the great work!