But the fact is that small talk—the kind that happens between two people who don’t know each other—is the most important talk we do. Language is the most direct and effective method for communicating our objectives.
So what should your objective be in making small talk? Good question.
The goal is simple: Start a conversation, keep it going, create a bond, and leave with the other person thinking, “I dig that person,” or whatever other generational variation of that phrase you want to use.
A lot has been said about how one should go about doing that. But in my opinion, the experts have gotten wrong the one thing that works the best. The first thing small-talk experts tend to do is place rules around what can and can’t be said. They claim that when you first meet a person, you should avoid unpleasant, overly personal, and highly controversial issues.
Wrong! Don’t listen to these people!
Nothing has contributed more to the development of boring chitchatters everywhere. The notion that everyone can be everything to everybody at all times is completely off the mark. Personally, I’d rather be interested in what someone was saying, even if I disagreed, than be catatonic any day.
When it comes to making an impression, differentiation is the name of the game. Confound expectation. Shake it up. How? There’s one guaranteed way to stand out in the professional world: Be yourself. I believe that vulnerability—yes, vulnerability—is one of the most under appreciated assets in business today.
Too many people confuse secrecy with importance. Business schools teach us to keep everything close to our vest. But the world has changed. Power, today, comes from sharing information, not withholding it. More than ever, the lines demarcating the personal and the professional have blurred. We’re an open-source society, and that calls for open-source behavior. And as a rule, not many secrets are worth the energy required to keep them secret. Being up front with people confers respect; it pays them the compliment of candor. The issues we all care most about are the issues we all want to talk about most. Of course, this isn’t a call to be confrontational or disrespectful. It’s a call to be honest, open, and vulnerable enough to genuinely allow other people into your life so that they can be vulnerable in return.
When you realize the best icebreaker is a few words from the heart, the act of starting a conversation becomes far less daunting. Again and again I’m surprised by the power of the vulnerability principle in the art of making small talk.
The best way to become good at small talk is not to talk small at all.
How another person perceives you is determined by a number of things you do before you utter your first word.
• First, give the person a hearty smile. It says, “I’m approachable.”
• Maintain a good balance of eye contact. If you maintain an unblinking stare 100 percent of the time, that qualifies as leering. That’s plain scary. If you keep eye contact less than 70 percent of the time, you’ll seem disinterested and rude. Somewhere in between is the balance you’re looking for.
• Unfold your arms and relax. Crossing your arms can make you appear defensive or closed. It also signals tension. Relax! People will pick up on your body language and react accordingly.
• Nod your head and lean in, but without invading the other person’s space. You just want to show that you’re engaged and interested.
• Learn to touch people. Touching is a powerful act. Most people convey their friendly intentions by shaking hands; some go further by shaking with two hands. My favorite way to break through the distance between me and the person I’m trying to establish a bond with is to touch the other person’s elbow. It conveys just the right amount of intimacy, and as such, is a favorite of politicians. It’s not too close to the chest, which we protect, but it’s slightly more personal than a hand.
One helpful technique I use is to try and envision myself as a mirror to the person with whom I’m speaking.
What’s the cadence of their speech? How loudly do they talk? What’s their body language? By adjusting your behavior to mirror the person you are talking to, he’ll automatically feel more comfortable. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should be disingenuous. Rather, it shows that you’re particularly sensitive to other people’s emotional temperaments. You’re just tweaking your style to ensure that the windows remain wide open.
How do you conclude a conversation?
During meetings and social gatherings, I’m often quite blunt. I’ll mention something meaningful that was said in the course of our conversation and say, “There are so many wonderful people here tonight; I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least try and get to know a few more of them. Would you excuse me for a second?” People generally understand, and appreciate the honesty. There’s also always the drink option. I’ll say: “I’m going to get another drink. Would you like one?” If they say no, I don’t have an obligation to come back. If they say yes, I’ll be sure to enter into another conversation on my way to the bar. When I return with a drink, I’ll say, “I just ran into some people you should meet. Come on over.”
As William James pointed out, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” You should be governed by the idea that one should seek first to understand, then to be understood. We’re often so worried about what we’re going to say next that we don’t hear what’s being said to us now.
There are few ways to signal to your listener that you are interested and listening actively. Take the initiative and be the first person to say hello. This demonstrates confidence and immediately shows your interest in the other person. When the conversation starts, don’t interrupt. Show empathy and understanding by nodding your head and involving your whole body in engaging the person you’re talking with. Ask questions that demonstrate (sincerely) you believe the other person’s opinion is particularly worth seeking out. Focus on their triumphs. Laugh at their jokes. And always, always, remember the other person’s name. Nothing is sweeter to someone’s ears than their own name. At the moment of introduction, I visually attach a person’s name to their face. Seconds later, I’ll repeat the person’s name to make sure I got it, and then again periodically throughout the conversation.
If All Else Fails, these Five Words That Never Do
“You’re wonderful. Tell me more.”
Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi, Tahl Raz