Small Talk: More Than “Just” Idle Conversation
“We cannot judge either of the feelings or of the character of [men] with perfect accuracy, from their actions or their appearance in public: it is from their careless conversation, their half-finished sentences, that we may hope with the greatest probability of success to discover their real character.”
– Maria Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish novelist, 1767-1849)
When you meet someone for the first time – which you do often in the meetings and convention industry or in networking situations – what do you do with that person? Usually you strike-up a conversation to learn who they are, what they do, and underlying everything else, how they can help you. Conversational skills are an important subset of effective communication skills and are overlooked in communication skills programs. However, on a daily basis and in seemingly inconsequential situations you tend to have short, informal conversations-otherwise known as engaging in small talk…more than you make formal presentations.
I used to consider such interaction “idle conversation” until I learned and understood how much I communicate about myself personally and professionally in these brief encounters. In fact the subtle messages you convey when engaged in conversations are often stronger than those in formal presentations because you are not in a rehearsed situation.
Let’s look at some pointers for effective conversational skills.
- Keep conversations at a high level. Deep feelings and intense personal stories are inappropriate until an initial distance threshold is mutually crossed and you each give permission to the other to move to a deeper level of trust. One might argue that this encourages superficial relationships. It has been my experience that in business and professional settings one meets and converses with more people by remaining neutral until a connection is made that establishes a foundation for deeper discussion.
- Along the same vein, avoid controversial topics and opinions. A rule of thumb is no politics, religion, sex, money, inappropriate humor or generalizations. Refuse to gossip, complain, pass rumors, or otherwise engage in negative comments.
- The way to find the connection that leads to a deeper level of discussion is to pick up on key words. Ask open-ended questions. Use a reporter’s maxim: ask who, what, when, where, why, and sometimes, how. When meeting vendors at an exposition to determine whether a particular one is the right fit for your event needs, use the reporter’s maxim to dig beneath the marketing rhetoric.
- Be brief. Make only two or three statements before pausing to let the other person speak.
- Smile. The other person is probably as nervous as you are. Conversation is an uncomfortable process for many people, especially between strangers. The more open and inviting you appear to be the more others will feel comfortable approaching you.
- You may encounter the opposite of a reluctant speaker…the person who goes on-and-on and from whom you feel you cannot extract yourself away to move on to meet others. Adopt an ending ahead of time that you can use to close most conversations.
The best way to get comfortable with small talk or conversation is to practice. Put yourself in situations where you have to meet people and talk to them to fulfill your goals. Hone your conversational skills and watch your event plans succeed.