In business, we will often find ourselves in circumstances where we must conjure up pleasant, void-filling conversation with individuals we hardly know. These are folks we would not normally find ourselves connecting with in everyday life, and we can struggle to interact because we don’t have mutually familiar references. The following consists of a few tips to help you master (or improve) your very important soft skill, the art of small talk.
Close-ended questions can often be conversation killers. If your query can be answered with a simple “yes or no”, it is the wrong question. Your questions should try to draw people out. Something similar to: “How long have you been with the company?” is probably going to get you a “Three months”, and then, silence. You don’t want it to be like pulling teeth, so eliminate the possibility of terse answers.
Instead try “How long have you been with the company, and what drew you to the organization?” That invites them to speak about themselves, and, after all, most people enjoy the opportunity to share their opinion.
If, despite your best efforts, they still seem reluctant, be prepared to move on. Some people just aren’t willing to participate, and that’s something you’ll need to accept. Excuse yourself politely and find a more willing conversational partner.
Of course, talking about the company is easy, if you’re both from the same firm. It’s not that much more difficult if you’re from the same business sector. Where it really starts to diverge is when you’re in a more general gathering, or at least something not industry-related.
You might be rubbing elbows with the upper echelon at an art opening or a charity event. You could be attending a conference where you’re only interacting with a small, specific sector, and the remainder is largely irrelevant to you.
Use these occasions to “catch up” with acquaintances that you haven’t seen in a while. By the same token, you are still likely to meet fascinating people who could significantly enhance your network in unforeseen ways. Whenever you have a spare moment, visit an unrelated part of the conference, because you might meet someone interesting.
For that reason, you need some questions on hand that are significantly better than: “How about [that local sports team]?” or “Crazy weather we’re having, huh?”
While remembering that they still must be leading questions, there are some topics you might want to avoid altogether, or approach in a more roundabout way. These include politics and religion, and a spate of others that could get you in trouble.
It may seem likely that you’re in a group of people that largely agree with your own point of view, and you expect no conflict (shared love or dislike), but don’t blindside someone with a blatant political question. It asks them to reveal too much about themselves all at once, especially to a complete stranger.
Instead, ask questions that reflect a genuine interest and curiosity about the person you’re talking to. Consider these ideas and keep them in your repertoire to pull out when they’re useful.
- Have you ever met a famous personality, or regretted a missed opportunity to do so?
- If you could talk to an earlier version of yourself what would you say? Would you attempt to alter an earlier decision?
- What piece of modern technology could you not do without?
- Have you seen [that new movie/play/event] yet? It’s supposed to be [exciting, romantic, the technical achievement of a decade].
- I heard you talking about “X” and I am certainly not an expert on the subject. Could you help me understand it a little bit better?
- Hi, I’m “Bob”, and I’m in capital financing. What do you do that keeps you off the streets and out of trouble?
- (In a group of industry-related people) It doesn’t look good for XYZ Corporation right now. How do you think the situation is going to play out?
- What do you think of the idea of ABC and DEF merging? Will it kill competition or give us better products and lower costs?
Small talk lubricates social interaction. Even if you dread small talk, after you’ve had a chat with somebody, don’t you actually feel a little bit better? Despite the fact that it might make you nervous, our heritage is to be social creatures. Interacting socially is completely natural to humans, and if you just relax it will happen by itself.
Just remember that the key to effective small talk is to be genuine, and make the other person feel better about themselves, as if they have helped you in some way. In aid of that, if you notice somebody has an Armani suit, or a stunning haute couture dress, don’t just say “Wow” in your mind. Let them know what a great impression they made upon you.
Now they feel doubly-successful because they’ve been helpful and they’ve impressed you. And that makes you the winner in that conversation.
Further Reading: Networking Your Way Toward a New Career
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