3 Top Tips For Making Great Small Talk
Two words that can send shivers down the spine of even the most competent people in business.
People who, when you get them talking about their work, speak with complete confidence. But as soon as the conversation veers into less formal territory, become blithering idiots whose brain is screaming, “Arrrggghhh small talk! I’m shit at this! I need to steer this back to talking business.”
But maybe they shouldn’t be so hasty.
Our survey says…
A recent study by the University of Warwick revealed that just four minutes of small talk can reveal key personality traits – something that’s incredibly useful when it comes to forming relationships.
As co-author of the study, Professor Daniel Sgroi said, “It might seem like a drain on time and productivity but our research suggests small talk is an important way to learn about the personality of others…In even a few minutes we will start to form a mental model of the person we are talking with: are they extroverted or introverted, do they seem upbeat or downbeat, cooperative or uncooperative? These sorts of impressions won’t be perfect, but they will be useful.”
So if you identify as one of the people I described earlier who loathes small talk, or are someone who just doesn’t feel you’ve quite got the hang of it, here are my top three tips for making the most of it.
Tip #1: Understand what small talk is
A senior executive on one of my recent workshops said she was bad at small talk because it required you to know something about the subject being discussed – whatever in the world that might be – and that automatically put her on the back foot.
I explained small talk isn’t about being a human encyclopaedia that already has the answers. Instead, it’s about asking questions then listening to what’s said in order to discover the answers.
She practically slapped her hand to her forehead with the sudden realisation that’s what she already did when she spoke to people – after years of thinking she was bad at small talk.
Tip #2: Take Kipling’s advice
The writer Rudyard Kipling (he of The Jungle Book fame) has a poem that begins:
I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.
I said before that small talk is about asking questions and so long as you keep those six ‘serving-men’ in mind, you’ll never run out of things to ask.
So even if the person you’re talking to mentions an obscure hobby like duck herding (yes, it’s a real thing) that you’re unlikely to know anything about, the conversation can continue to flow:
“What exactly is duck herding?”
“Why did you become interested in it?
“When do you do your duck herding?”
“How do you get the ducks to stay in a group?”
“Where do you go to do it?”
“Who taught you?”
You don’t have to ask the questions in exactly the order of Kipling’s poem and you can obviously use the same question starter again and again – especially if the person’s answer leads you down a particular avenue of discussion.
The point is, so long as you are saying something then the other person is saying something then the process is being repeated, you are making small talk. It doesn’t matter if all of your speech is in the form of a question.
Tip #3: Find a link
Having said that it’s fine to be only asking questions, it’s obviously nicer if you can have more of a two-way discussion.
To achieve that, find a link – even a tenuous one – from what the other person is talking about to something you feel comfortable talking about.
So if the person says they’ve trained their dog to do the duck herding and you happen to be a dog-owner, ask more questions in that area:
“What breed of dog do you have? I’ve got a [dog breed] and they’re a master at ignoring my commands, so I wouldn’t stand a chance of herding ducks with them!”
If the other person has any social skills, they’ll pick up on your titbit of insight and expand on it, asking you more about your dog. And even if they don’t (it’s astonishing how many people want to talk only of themselves) you’ve still kept the small talk flowing.
So there you have it – my three top tips for making sure you don’t miss out on the benefits of small talk. I’m sure there are plenty more and if you have one you’d like to share, please do – the comment box is directly below. Thank you!
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