Small Talk: Getting You On the Road To Success

Prague Leaders Magazine, July 2011

“The road to success, whether social or professional, is paved with talk. If you are not confident as a talker, the road can be bumpy,” says Larry King, the award-winning American television host best known for his years on CNN.

I will take Mr. King one step further and say that my thirty years of professional life has taught me that the road to success begins with a specific kind of talk- small talk.

Small talk is the art of connecting in an easy and comfortable manner by making pleasant conversation on casual topics. Most first encounters start with small talk and, in spite of the diminutive label, small talk is anything but trivial. Its main purpose is to help you make a good impression by making others feel good about themselves.

It has been estimated that the average person speaks about eighteen thousand words per day (it’s probably more for me). Being able to speak is the most essential form of communication, it is what sets humans apart.

While most people claim to dislike what they perceive as superficial conversation, based on my personal experience, I believe that two-thirds of our communication is devoted to lighter topics rather than to deep intense ones. The same way appetizers comes before main course, establishing and developing relationships require some pleasant exchange on a subject of mutual interest before engaging in heavy debate about deeper topics.

So why not develop skills and learn one of the most fundamental relationship competencies we have at your disposal- communication. A savvy communicator is able to make agreeable conversation on casual topics and sees small talk as a way of getting to know people, to make them feel comfortable by finding some common ground. And knowing how to connect in an easy and comfortable manner with others is a lot easier to master than we often think.

For those of you who are still struggling with the how to make the best impression, I thought I would share some tips I have learned over the many years of socially interacting with people from all walks of life, countries and cultures.

Savvy Communicators Do:

  • Prepare themselves with several agreeable topics. The easy one are about the weather, the latest news, sport, hobbies or culture. A good communicator is familiar with the kind of topics that interest others and knows when to bring them up during the conversation. Prior to an event where you know you will engage in some social chatting, I suggest that you think about three different issues you believe will be of interest to all concerned, as well as four common questions that will get people talking.
  • Be the first to say “Hello” and introduce yourself. Most people are uncomfortable speaking with people they don’t know and they will be grateful that you spare them the awkwardness of making the first step. When possible, do not hesitate to encourage other reserved people to join in by asking for their opinion about the topic you are speaking about.
  • Smile and maintain eye contact with the person you are speaking with. Smiling is perceived as a visual signal of appreciation and it is also a great tool many of us use to connect with others.
  • Stay focused on your conversational partner and listen with attention to what he/she is saying. Refrain from planning your next line before the person finishes speaking. The primary asset of a savvy communicator is the ability to listen attentively to others.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice. Seize every opportunity you have to speak with everyone you meet- not just co-workers, friends or people with whom you want to do business, but also with waiters, cashiers, cab drivers, sales clerks, etc.

Savvy Communicators Don’t:

  • Speak about controversial topics like politics, religion, money or sex. Disraeli said “my idea of an agreeable person is someone who agrees with me.” Good conversation has to be pleasant and amiable. Instead of bringing up difficult topics, it is wise to keep the discussion light and simple by choosing topics which everyone can contribute to in an easy and uncomplicated manner.
  • Be a bore by speaking about personal topics like your children, your job or your health. If someone asks you about a personal topic, it is best to give a ten-second answer. In a social setting no one is interested in hearing about your children’s school activities or your latest diet concern. The sensible thing to do after you have politely answered a personal question is to turn quickly to a new broader subject: “Enough about me, has anyone been watching Wimbledon/the Tour de France this summer?”
  • Interrupt the person who is talking to you. No matter how boring people are, you won’t be able to make a good impression if you interrupt others when they speak. If you want to extricate yourself from an undesired discussion, it is best to direct the person toward another topic or another person: “John, I am not sure if you had met Petr, Petr, meet my friend John who has just come back from a biking trip around the south of France.” However you do it, make sure you wait until there is a natural pause in the discussion.
  • Treat people as business prospects to add to your network e.g. potential clients or employers. While social events offer great networking and business opportunities, do not forget that no one likes to feel that your main goal for speaking to them is to try to get something from them immediately. The biggest mistake is to focus on short-term gain instead of focusing on the long-term relationship. Make the present an enjoyable stress-free experience.
  • Focus on you and/or monopolize the conversation. Regardless of how smart and knowledgeable you are, most people welcome the opportunity to speak about themselves and what they know rather than listening to you and what you know.

From creating a friendly atmosphere between two people, to allowing them to learn about one another in a short period of time, or helping you learn more about a topic you are interested in, small talk has many benefits. But unless you apply the self-discipline and knowledge it takes to become comfortable with small talk you will have less success being sought after as a guest at everyone’s dinner party or social event, or acquiring a reputation as a pleasant social companion.

While small talk is not always easy, savvy communicator know that mastering the art of comfortable and easy conversation is the first step on the road of success. Keep it light, keep it simple, keep it easy to follow, and watch how quickly you accelerate toward your destination!

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.