Coming from someone who just graduated from business school, it may seem strange to focus on the skill of small talk. Next to more formal business skills, such as networking and building an elevator pitch, chitchat just doesn’t seem like it should be a top priority. I’ve learned, however, that being a good small talker is absolutely vital to your professional success.
Regardless of your role, you will surely find yourself in professional situations where you have to make conversation with someone you don’t know well (or at all), whether it’s a co-worker, senior manager, client, or new networking contact. As you jump into that initial conversation, it’s important that you’re able to make a quick connection, so you can move toward building a more substantial relationship.
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For some, small talk comes naturally—but for others (including myself!), it can be pretty tricky. I get especially nervous when I’m talking to someone senior at my organization, because I want to make a good impression without coming across as boring. How do you hold a conversation with someone you barely know without resorting to commenting on the weather?
In my experience, the best way to deal with this common situation is to have a couple of pre-planned ideas of things to say—that way, you never have to worry about freezing up. Here is the simple, three-step method I use.
1. Briefly Reveal Something About Yourself
Don’t go silent after you shake hands and introduce yourself—continue by volunteering something about yourself. It doesn’t have to be anything revolutionary; often I’ll simply comment on what brought me to the situation (e.g., “I’m here because I’ll be working on the operations phase of this project—I’m really excited to kick things off during this meeting”).
I’ve found that this helps put others at ease because it gives them some context for who I am. It also establishes a pattern of discussion that involves both parties talking, instead of a conversation that is completely reliant on me asking the other person questions.
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2. Ask an Open-Ended Question That’s Fairly Easy to Answer
Asking the right question means that the other person won’t have to work too hard to engage, but also won’t be able to get away with a simple yes-or-no answer that will stop the conversation cold.
For example, if you’re waiting for a meeting to start, you could ask how he or she got involved in the project that is going to be discussed. Or, if you’d rather expand the conversation beyond work-related topics, you could go for a more fun, personal question—I often ask if the person has any interesting trips planned.
3. Direct the Conversation to Current Events
If it feels like your small talk has devolved into a Q&A, feel free to move the conversation away from professional topics and talk about what’s going on in the world. Of course, the advice that it’s best to avoid conversations about religion and politics still holds true, but if you’re the one to pick the topic, then you’ll be able to direct the discussion appropriately.
I try to stick to well-known topics, such as news about local sports teams or recent events covered in a daily digest (try Daily PNut, The Week, or theSkimm), so that it’s more likely the other person will have also something to say on the subject. That way, the conversation can progress much more naturally.
Keep this method in mind, and the next time you find yourself standing next to an SVP in the coffee line, you’ll be able to make a confident, intelligent impression—without any mention of the weather.
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