“Every great romance and each big business deal begins with small talk. The key to successful small talk is learning how to connect with others, not just communicate with them.” Bernardo J. Carducci
Small talk is the starting point of all relationships. Although by calling it small talk, we actually perpetuate the notion that it is trivial and unimportant. Further, it is the cornerstone of civility, as it enables contact, which discourages mistreatment of others. Many people think small talk is an innate talent. It is, in fact, an acquired skill. There is a structure and there are rules of engagement. Once individuals know the basic structure and rules for making small talk, connecting with others can become less intimidating. Here is a step-by-step guide to the art of making successful small talk:
Begin with setting talk, such as making comments about the weather or other facets of the environment (e.g., “Boy, this line is long.”). The purpose of setting talk is to let others know that you are willing to make conversation, nothing more, nothing less. So, don’t feel like your setting-talk remarks have to be witty or brilliant. It’s best to keep them simple.
Proceed to personal introductions. In addition to clearly enunciating your name, you can anticipate the next question and provide information about what you do for a living. A common mistake made by bad small talkers is to provide only a terse comment about what they do for a living, such as “I work at the mall.” A more constructive response might be, “I work at the mall selling cell phones, and you would not believe the reasons people give me for wanting a cell phone.” This provides hooks for others to latch on to--"So, tell us some of the stories” or “I saw this news program on some interesting advances in cell phone technology.” —so that the conversation can begin to flow.
Another strategy is to prepare a small and preferably charming opening statement.
I remember a party that took place at the time of a well-publicized trial. One guest who was a lawyer introduced himself, “My name is John Doe and I’m one of the bad guys.” Immediately, he broke the ice with self-deprecating humor and was peppered with friendly questions that kept him going a long time. So, a simple, pre-planned personal introduction can help jumpstart a conversation.
Next, move to pretopical selection by throwing out topics for possible discussion. “I really like this movie.” The implicit rule is, when someone throws out a topic, support it either by asking a question or making a comment. Bad small talkers often think they need to say something critical or brilliant; unable to do either, they say nothing at all. Also, you shouldn’t feel like a failure if people don't respond to the topic you’ve tossed out. It may take two or three attempts until you hit on a topic that triggers a response.
Now, advance to post-topical elaboration by associating the topic of conversation to other related topics. For example when talking about the vacations, you might say, “Speaking of vacations, we had some great Caribbean food on our last vacation. Have you ever had Caribbean food? It’s the give-and-take of post-topical elaboration that makes conversing so much fun.
Finally, when terminating a conversation, let the person know you’ll be leaving soon, express gratitude for the conversation, summarize some of the major points, and set the stage for future conversation. For example, you can say, “I really must be going soon, but I had a great time chatting with you. I really appreciate your comments about that new movie. Here’s my card. Call me if you know of any other movies you think I might enjoy.”
Here are two more pieces of advice to remember: Bad small talkers also tend to get stuck at setting talk. Or they spend too much time focused on their favorite topic, whether it’s baseball statistics or Star Wars. They think they are being social because they are talking. But they dominate the conversation, talking at somebody, not with someone. So remember, the key to being a being a successful schmoozer is simple: you don’t have to be brilliant but you do have to be kind--show a willingness to converse and support the efforts by others who do the same.
*Based on Bernardo J. Carducci’s The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything (1999, Pocket Guide Publishing).