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‘Small talk’ Your Way to a Successful Career

Small talk is the most commonly used form of human communication available to us. Most people, however, consider this sort of casual conversation a waste of time. They think of small talk as shallow, mechanical, meaningless chatter.
What these people don’t know is that effective managers, dynamite marketing personnel and other accomplished communicators often begin their more successful and productive conversations with small talk.
A period of small talk before a business meeting helps you:
  • Build confidence
  • Learn something about the other person
  • Establish a sense of unity
  • Set the mood for a discussion
  • Gain support for your ideas
  • Create a bridge to more meaningful dialogue
How Small Talk Benefits You
Small talk is a natural prelude to any serious discussion. It provides you and everyone else involved with an opportunity to size up and evaluate the situation.
Small talk is the human’s way of sensing a situation before jumping in. But its effectiveness is not just in words you use. Small talk is most effective when your other senses are also on alert.
Through small talk, you can:
Put people at ease while creating a smooth transition from the initial greeting to the business at hand. Diving into a business discussion without a preamble makes people uncomfortable and results in a more strained interaction.
Persuade people to be more receptive to your ideas
Encourage others to reveal aspects of themselves
Initiate professional opportunities in situations even outside the structure of the business setting.
Some Tips for Success
To be successful at small talk, however, you must have something to say.

Here are some suggestions:
  • Be informed. Read the news (t.v. newspapers, online news, etc.) The daily news is an excellent conversation starter and, by staying informed, you’ll always have something of value to say.
  • Be prepared with topics useful to your cause, interest or business. Maybe you’re looking for a particular antique, shopping for a new car or considering hiring a computer consulting firm and need direction. Small talk is a natural networking opportunity.
  • Practice speaking on a variety of random topics. Either ask someone to throw topics out while you speak on each subject for three minutes or drill yourself on topics of your choice.
  • Develop a list of topics you’re comfortable talking about.
  • Ask questions. If someone is speaking on a subject that you know little about, ask and learn.
  • Find out about the other person. Those who are most admired for their small-talk are those who encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Locate common ground. Does this person share an interest in boating, country music, woodworking, bicycling or hiking, for example? Is she a grandmother? Is he from your home state? Become clever at discovering little commonalties with people you meet.
  • Give and take. Don’t monopolize the conversation.
  • Listen so it shows. Listening is at least as important in small talk as speaking. Demonstrate a sincere interest in what the other person has to say. It could make the difference between a successful business transaction and a failed one.
  • Expect to learn. Look at small talk as an opportunity to learn something new. Learn by being interested in what the other person has to say.
Some Topics to Avoid
When small talk is frivolous, meaningless and ineffective, it isn’t the fault of small talk, but rather the purveyor of the small talk. As with any form of communication, there are taboos.

Avoid the following in small talk:
  • Go-nowhere topics. Until you become proficient at changing the subject or leading the conversation, avoid topics – like traffic or the weather – that don’t go anywhere.
  • Big topics that go on and on and on. Keep small talk small by avoiding subjects that require wordy explanations. Learn to put otherwise lengthy dissertations in a nutshell.
  • Controversial subjects. Stay away from politics, religion and related issues with people whose opinions you don’t know, particularly in business settings.
  • Cliches. Try to avoid repeating the old tried and over-tried phrases that pop out of our mouths automatically during small talk opportunities.
  • Criticism. When you don’t know the person you’re talking to, don’t criticize anyone else. The “overdressed hag” across the room might be his wife. The “back-stabbing overachiever” may be her favorite nephew.
Improve Your Small Talk Skills
Once you understand the importance of small talk, you’ll be much more aware of what takes place during these casual conversations.
Here’s how to improve your skills:
Practice, practice, practice – with friends, family members, store clerks, strangers at the bus stop, etc.
Join organizations where you receive training in speaking, Toastmasters International (Toastmasters), for example. Or enroll in a class or seminar in communication or interpersonal relationships.
Socialize. Accept more invitations, join a trade organization or a club that is in line with one of your hobbies or interests. Or go out and mingle in public places. Being with strangers who have similar interests provides the perfect arena for small talk opportunities.
Make a Smooth Transition
When small talk is a prelude to business, it will be necessary at some point to draw it to a close and begin the meeting. The best way to do this is through a purposeful transition. One way to learn to recognize good transitional points in the process of small talk is to watch television talk show hosts in action. Most of them have impeccable timing and great style in making transitions.
Here are a few suggestions:
Learn to lead. Although knowing how to follow is vital to successful small talk, leading is equally important, particularly when the transition depends on you.
Recognize an opening and jump in. Say: “Let me tell you what we’re going to do in the interview.” “Shall we get on with our meeting?”
Stop Monopolists in their tracks. If possible, wait for them to take a breath or to pause. Then break in with a comment about their topic and immediately lead the conversation in the direction that you want it to go.

Reprinted with permission from Communication Briefings (