Small to Medium to Big Talk
As we meet with others in the face to face space, many of our initial conversations begin with a getting-to-know-you exchange, or small talk. "Meeting with people in person gives us the opportunity to truly connect with them," according to psychologist, Dr. Nando Pelusi (Psychology Today, November/December 2007, p. 689). Some people sneer at small talk and dismiss it as banal or trivial and a waste of precious time. That's a huge mistake, because small talk allows us to connect with others and establish common interests. Many people avoid face to face time because they're neither comfortable nor confident in their abilities to communicate in person. They may be forfeiting amazing opportunities.
I asked more than a hundred successful people who I thought were great conversationalists (and I'm a tough grader), "To what skill do you most attribute your success?" Their number one answer was the ability to converse.
In these competitive, multitasking times, there are people so focused on their agendas, their quotas, their digital techie tools, their professional and personal obligations and their bottom line that they forget their spoken words contribute to the chemistry and connections with their clients, colleagues, friends and families. Others take pride in being urgent, get-to-the-point, terse people who have more important things on their mind than small talk, which they feel is insignificant drivel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Life and work flow more smoothly when we're comfortable with conversation and, more important, when we know how to make others feel comfortable. We need to embrace small talk because it leads to big talk.
In the early 1990s, Dr. Thomas Harrell, professor emeritus of business at Stanford University, studied a group of MBAs a decade after their graduation. His goal was to identify the traits of those who were most successful. He found that grade-point average had no bearing on success. However, the one common trait he identified among those who were successful was their verbal fluency. They were confident conversationalists who could talk to anyone face to face: colleagues, investors, strangers, bosses or associates. They could speak well in front of audiences, and they were easy to talk to in meetings, on airplanes, at events and casually over beverages at receptions. They started with small talk and segued through Medium Talk to Big Talk about business, interests, technology, and trends. These savvy businesspeople possessed the skills of successful leaders: the ability to converse, connect and communicate in myriad situations. The unequivocal equation is verbal fluency = success and affluency.
If we want to be successful, we need to develop and enhance our conversational prowess in the face to face space. Schmooze or lose is the rule for both personal and professional success. Schmooze means relaxed, friendly, easygoing conversation. Period. End of story. There is no end result that is preplanned as a goal. Formal research from Harvard to Stanford and places in between indicates that the ability to converse and communicate is a key factor of successful leaders. Oral communication skills are consistently rated in the top three most important skill sets in surveys by universities and workplace specialists.
While we're able to communicate digitally, we still must be proficient in the face to face shared space as well as in cyberspace. As corporations continue to merge, jobs disappear and industries are offshored, we need conversation and communication more than ever before. Networks of loyal customers and professional and personal relationships become pivotal. We not only establish, develop and nurture those relationships by our actions but also by our exchanges and our face to face conversations.
While we want to start with brilliant, scintillating and/or illuminating commentary, the reality is that we start with small talk. These comments are also known as icebreakers. I prefer to call them ice melters, which slowly but surely meld and mix our conversations, questions, answers and interests as we establish common bonds.
Some of us are naturally briefer in our conversations. Saving nanoseconds by eliminating conversational connections with people makes no sense at all in business or in personal life. By the time we leave the planet, we may have saved an hour by avoiding those moments. Big deal. If we invest in the pleasantries of small talk to establish rapport and confirm connections, we'll probably be happier, richer and have more friends.
Don't Join the Denigrators
My survey of one hundred great conversationalists yielded two results, one of which stunned me. The first is that 75 percent of the responders, people whom I considered to be great conversationalists, still thought of themselves as shy. I was shocked. Several admitted to working through shyness, but at times they still felt uncomfortable. They could have fooled me! In fact, they did. They worked through it so well that I found them to be exemplary at face to face conversation.
The second result was that not one of my great chatters denigrated small talk. They simply saw it as a way of getting to know people, putting others at ease as well as themselves, and finding common ground. Different attitude, different outcome. Not to sound Socratic, but my deduction is clear: "therefore only challenged conversationalists denigrate small talk."
Think about it. Have you ever had a wonderful conversation with someone who had no interest in the little things that start, move and expand verbal exchanges? I think not. Only those who aren't good at or comfortable with small talk make light of it and, in fact, put it down.
Medium talk is the transitional exchange that builds on small-talk topics and segues to larger issues. For example, you may start talking about the event venue, the food and how the venue was recognized for supporting local soup kitchens. The other person's response will probably be on that subject. You would move then to medium talk, which might include how your company or you as an individual is involved in providing volunteer servers for the program.
The transition occurs when you bring your newest project or company into the conversation about a neutral topic. If your conversational companion is not adept at exchanges, you can ask about his or her projects or company policies and programs. And the conversation may organically move back to small talk and then hopscotch to BIG TALK.
Small Talk Leads to BIG TALK
In most situations, BIG TALK murder, war, famine, pestilence and papal edict 123 is not a verbal exchange starter. At a museum fund-raiser for students of the arts, not everyone wants to hear your views on the latest virus or border skirmish. Also, no matter how big or important current issues are, you must know the right time and place for them. You can move to bigger issues once rapport and connection are established.
Because small talk is the biggest talk we do, we need a collective attitude shift. Because it builds, develops and nurtures relationships, conversation is how we strengthen the safety net of people who make up our personal and professional networks, our Rolodex™ (buddy lists, databases and friends) of sources and resources. You could say we ought to build our "rolodexterity." Small talk is valuable. It's how we find common interests/bonds and exchange information, preferences, ideas and opinions on issues. It's how we melt the ice and get a sense of who people are what they like and what they are like. And it doesn't always have to be about small subjects. I've often heard people getting to know one another by having casual conversations about art, economics, government programs or health issues.
Small talk is what we do to start the exchange that moves to medium talk and then builds to big talk. It's the schmoozing that cements relationships and ultimately leads to success. "Conversations are quasi-relationships. Every second you're with someone, every word or sentence you exchange extends the relationship," said Tim Gunn, cohost of Project Runway (Wall Street Journal, "Small Talk," October 25, 2007).
This Is How We Do It
Information is power. Building a knowledge bank helps us start and contribute to face to face conversations with more ease and interest. Whether online or in print, reading a newspaper or news source each day is a must! That's how we glean conversational subject matter. Some people balk at this suggestion until they try it. This is not only the best way to invest in the knowledge bank from which to draw conversation, but it can also be fun, entertaining and informative. Whether it's online or on paper, the newspaper is full of conversation topics. If you're not a reader, listen to or watch a news program or visit your favorite news blogs.
Why should a busy person with a multitude of demands on his or her time read a daily newspaper? As my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kurtz, said, "A good conversationalist is well read, well versed and well rounded." He or she knows what is going on in the world and can talk about it. Reading the paper makes face to face conversation infinitely more manageable.
The Desktop Twist on News
Whether it's from Google, Yahoo!, AOL or another source, we can get news bits delivered to our desktop and even our cell phone. We can visit any number of news sites, blogs or podcasts for the latest on an infinite variety of subjects. We have instant access to news locally and globally.
It makes us aware of popular culture and industry information. You do not have to be a "Dead Head" to know about the legacy of Jerry Garcia or a "Trekkie" to know about Mr. Spock and the newest Star Trek movie. Nor do you have to be a teenager to be aware of the PussyCat Dolls, the newest version of War of World Craft or the latest trends at Comic-Con. We can talk about sports, movies, current events and the latest famous trial, from Scopes to Scott Peterson to O.J.; there will always be a famous trial, celebrity arrest or medical discovery.
Do you have to be an expert on everything? Absolutely not. But you can be sufficiently well-read to initiate or contribute to conversations. You need enough knowledge of general topics to pose intelligent questions.
We must listen to the answers to our questions and comment on them, not bring up the price of iPods or Porsches when someone is talking about Darfur or Darjeeling tea.
Intelligent questions invite others to speak about their own areas of expertise and interest. They also give us the chance to learn from what other people say. Every event, meeting or party becomes an educational opportunity that provides us with additional information and resources to provide food for thoughtful conversation.
Small Talking Face to Face
There are three ways to make conversation, which I call the trifecta of talking: Observe, Ask, Reveal. OAR helps us paddle through small talk safely. In my presentations, I often have my audience pair up for the small-talk attitude shift. Using the OAR™ method, they have to find something small in the room to talk about with their partner. People have picked chandeliers, crown molding, wallpaper, fire exit signs and, on two occasions, shoes (my red and black heels). And in two to three minutes the conversations organically move, shift and twist to medium talk and then to big talk. The small talk never ends up where it started, and common interests are always revealed.
This is the easy part. Almost anything in our visual path is fair game: the venue, the food or the decor. As we face people, we can see their name badges, which provide information and bait for conversation hooks. In most areas, a comment about the traffic or finding a parking space is applicable.
Provide people with visual small-talk topics: a tie, a pin, a scarf. To underscore this point, we should give people a visual hook. And when we see that invitation to comment, we can respond with the bait for further conversation.
Some Possible Openers
- "The food looks great."
- "I see by your tie that you're a golfer."
- "I'm so glad I made it on time. The traffic was incredible."
- "Have you been to this hotel before for an event?
- "Would you recommend I join this association even though I'm new to the industry?"
- "Whoa! The (heat, rain, snow, fog) caused so much traffic. I was almost late."
Sultans of Segue
How do you move on to the next topic of conversation? Use the sultans of segue move with a subtle flow that continues the seamless process of the face to face exchange. There are magic phrases, responses and general comments that create bridges and start building the big conversation. Some of them are also handy for sidestepping or diffusing difficult people, as well as for politely moving the interchange along.
- "I hadn't thought of it that way. How did you come to that?"
- "That's a new way of looking at it."
- "It reminds me of..."
Borrow Other People's Lives
On a daily basis, most of us get to hear others' interesting, amusing or thoughtful stories that make a point. If you hear a story of interest to you, it will most likely be interesting to others as well.
I don't have children, so I borrow my friends' stories. I also borrow the stories of my Xtreme athlete friends, skilled crafts people, gardening experts and excellent cooks, since these are things I don't do let alone do well. Becky Gordon's quilts connect me to quilters, and Marcie's gardening connects me to those who plant, prune and grow. The stories of all my friends' children connect me to the parents I meet in business or social situations. When the parents in my circle share their stories in exasperation, I often hear the humor, which is defined in the Talmud as tragedy + time. Borrowing other people's lives helps us relate to those we meet with whom we may not easily see a similarity.
The brothers Heath (Chip and Dan) demonstrate how we remember stories in their brilliant book, Made to Stick (Random House, New York, January 2007, p. 243). During an exercise of one-minute speeches, the students "are unable to remember a single concept." The typical Stanford student uses 2.5 statistics, and one student in ten tells a story. Sixty-three percent of the class remember the stories, but only five percent remember the statistic. "We need to tell stories that connect, confirm, inform or amuse in order to be memorable and stick in people's minds."
The Surprise Party Karen's Story
When I was speaking in Dallas, Karen Cortell Reisman and I met for a beverage, and she shared a story after I asked about her son and daughter. I cracked up because it gave a whole new digital meaning to the term surprise party.
"No kidding! It really was a surprise party with a twist," shared Karen. "We took our son and five of his friends out to a Dallas steakhouse to celebrate my son's high school graduation. The boys were delightful, had a good time and were perfect gentlemen. After dinner, I suggested they come back to our house. The twenty-minute drive home was so quiet six boys in the car and not a sound. I just figured it was a guy thing that they didn't talk.
"We drove up to our home and there were fifty kids outside waiting for us! The boys weren't being quiet; they were quietly texting their buddy lists about coming to our house. It truly was a surprise party; however, my husband Jimmy and I were the ones who were surprised!"
Because I keep a small spiral notebook with me for such conversation fodder, I whipped out a pen and wrote this story down. Even the most unforgettable (or so we think) comment or story can get lost if we don't take time to record it somewhere. Some people use the recording memo on their cell phone. Others jot notes on their PDA. Whatever works for you. To write this book, I had to decipher spiral notebooks full of stories. The miracle: I could read them!
People say great things and tell us stories that we can quote as we "borrow" their lives, and that contributes to our conversations. "Personal history is best told and transmitted through stories, whether it's the story of our life or what just happened on the street on the way to meet someone. Your story becomes mine as you share it with me," according to Craig Harrison, a professional speaker and storyteller.
Be of Good Humor
Humor has a special way of bringing people together, either in a small-talk conversation face to face or on the phone. It can establish rapport and warmth. Humor is a unique and magical elixir that can even heal the body.
Both management and medical research support the value of humor. Laughter is good for your health. "Laughter works by stimulating the brain to produce hormones that help ease pain. It also stimulates the endocrine system, which may relieve symptoms of disease. Laughter can also help feelings of depression," according to Dr. William Fry of Stanford Medical School. Since Dr. Fry's original research, we have read volumes of research about humor as a tonic.
You don't have to be a stand-up comic to use humor effectively. Humor can be defined in two ways. First, it's the quality of being funny. Second, it's the ability to perceive, enjoy or express something funny. We love the person who gets our good lines and laughs.
The right sentence or phrase at the right moment can save a negotiation or a board meeting. But humor should be used judiciously, because it can offend as well as delight. I'm usually wary when I hear the phrase, "Did you hear the one about...?" Often we just did, or we recently read it in a forwarded e-mail.
Humor Do's and Don'ts
- Practice your stories and punch lines. I once practiced my opening story for a presentation seventeen times. Timing is everything!
- Watch comedies, both on television and at the movies, and read books about humor. I watch Two and a Half Men, Monk, and Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert (and way too many other comedies) with a paper and pencil by my side (and always attribute the funny lines).
- Use the AT&T rule to check any story or joke: Is it Appropriate? Is it Tasteful? Is it Timely?
- Laugh at yourself: it's a trait of people who take risks. Some of the best stories are those you tell on yourself.
- Observe for irony. One day I saw a fellow in the yoga lotus position outside Mollie Stone's supermarket. His eyes were closed in a meditative state. And, he was smoking a cigarette! Go figure! Meditative or menthol? Talk about ironic.
- "Don't tell jokes if you don't tell them well," advised David Glickman, stand-up comic, humorist and professional speaker.
- Don't put people down. Roasting can create a slow burn one that can backfire.
- Don't use humor that is racist, sexist, homophobic or that slurs religion, ethnic origin or disability. You never know with whom the person you're joking with is related or friends.
- Don't be afraid to let go and laugh. It's good for your health and makes working the room a lot more enjoyable.
We need to ask permission to use the stories that we hear. "That's so funny/poignant/interesting. Do you mind if I write that down?" Some people have told me that they don't mind, but they have asked me not to use their name. That's fine.
Something else happens when we respond to a story or comment and write it down. It shows we're listening, comprehending and valuing the comments. That makes a good impression.
Listen Actively, Not Passively
As a raconteur and veteran small talker, I have always been sensitive to the criticism about talkers. But research shows that just because a person is a good small talker doesn't mean he or she isn't also a good listener.
All of us need to be good listeners. It helps us move to medium talk and on to big talk. It means more than staring into someone's eyes while he or she talks, while you plan tomorrow's meeting, play a John Legend tune in your head or review the movie you saw last night. Active listening means hearing what people say, concentrating on them and their words and then responding. There's a benefit to really listening and being in the moment. We improve our chances of remembering both the person and the conversation, according to Dr. Ralph Nichols's breakthrough research on listening skills.
In some of my presentations, people practice role-playing as talkers and listeners. Thousands of talkers have said that the most important behaviors of active listening the things that most encouraged them to talk were what I call the Magnificent Seven of Listening.
Magnificent Seven of Listening
1. Making eye contact (We can't make eye contact if we're scanning a room or checking our e-mail, text messages or the television show we downloaded on our cell phone.)
3. Smiling and/or laughing
4. Asking relevant questions that indicate interest
5. Making statements that reflect similar situations
6. Using body language that is open and receptive
7. Bringing the conversation full circle
Robert Levy, Esq., attributes his success to his interest, ability and willingness to listen. He is executive director of the New Jersey Association of Mortgage Bankers and, at twenty-nine years of age, was the youngest deputy commissioner of banking in New Jersey. "I was surrounded by industry people with more experience and skills than I had. I became an observer and listener and learned from their stories about their mistakes, so I avoided making the same errors. I didn't want to be the person unaware of history, who was doomed to repeat it. Listening and respecting my experienced colleagues was an education that has served me well." We can all learn from Levy's advice on listening to those who are experienced and save ourselves from making unnecessary mistakes.
Five Fundamental Laws of Scintillating Small Talk
1. Be a conversational chameleon. Adapt conversation to the individual by age, interest, profession and geographic region. We talk to five-year-olds differently that we talk to ten-year-olds or thirty-year-olds.
2. Be a name dropper. Always mention the names of people, places or organizations that you might have in common with someone. In this six-degree-of-separation small world, you never know!
3. Borrow other people's lives. Share the stories of your friends who have kids or Web sites, study tae kwon do, are Xtreme athletes or have opera tickets, even if you don't. It helps connect us to people with different interests.
4. Be a two-timer. Give people a second chance. They may have been distracted the first time you met.
5. Be nice to everyone. Don't judge tomorrow's book by today's cover.
Allow me to expand on the last point. Being nice to everyone includes the service professionals we encounter on a daily basis, whether it's the checkout person at the supermarket, the counter person at the dry cleaners or the server at your local coffee shop. Whether it's a kind word, a "how are you" or a comment about the weather, which is, indeed, very small talk, it's significant to the people who stand on their feet for eight hours a day providing a service.
Four Fatal Flaws of Casual Conversation
1. Being unprepared. Not having your self-introduction in mind
2. Not reading papers, Web sites or information sources as fodder for conversation
3. Killing conversations by:
- Asking a barrage of questions, no matter how open-ended, and not listening to the answers. "Interrogations" are no substitute for conversations.
- Complaining (kvetching). It sets a negative tone for small talk.
- Monopolizing and manipulating. This doesn't open the door for the shy person who has a lot to offer.
- One-upping/competing, which is a way of putting others down and closes the door.
- Using off-color language.
- Interrupting, which is a universal irritant.
- Correcting. It's an insult, especially when done in front of others.
- Scanning the room.
4. Not listening. (Keep MP3 Earbuds out of ears, Bluetooth® off ears, BlackBerrys® out of sight.)
If we're conscious of listening actively, our small talk organically segues to a more meaningful, deeper exchange. Face to face conversation has been said to be a dying art, but with preparation and a positive attitude about small talk, we can revive it! RoAne's Reminders
- Adjust your attitude about small talk to be the grand opener for big talk.
- Read one newspaper a day, either online or on paper. Local, national and international conversation starters fill the pages.
- Clip and collect cartoons, announcements or articles of interest to you and your network. Or send a hyperlink with an e-mail note.
- Read newszines, professional journals, minutes and blogs for up-to-the-minute topics of conversation.
- Take note and take notes when you hear something interesting or observe the odd or absurd.
- Use humor (surely you jest!) carefully. Be lighthearted and don't take yourself too seriously. No dissing of others.
- Listen actively with ears, eyes and heart. Truly pay attention. Ditch the techie gadgets.
- Just say yes to new opportunities. Doing, seeing, visiting something new and beyond our everyday interests gives us something to talk about.
Copyright © 2008 by Susan RoAne