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6-Ways To Improve Your Small Talk Skills

What is your perspective on small talk? Many of our members have a strong aversion to it.

💬 ‘It seems so superficial’
💬 ‘It feels awkward’
💬 ‘I never know what to say or ask’

These are just some of the reasons our members *really* don’t like small talk. When we say ‘small talk’ we mean those quick conversations you might have with a colleague right before a meeting gets started or with a stranger at a conference.

And although small talk can indeed feel (and often be) awkward it doesn’t always have to be. In fact, these seemingly trivial moments can actually present important professional opportunities for us. Let’s explore them now. 

Why It's Worth Improving Your 'Small Talk' Skills

1. Develop relationships and build trust.

One of our members once commented that building relationships is like ‘building your bridges, ladders and ropes’ across an organization, making it MUCH easier to get things done because they already had pre-existing relationships with those they needed help from.

Taking the opportunity to chat with someone, whether it be before a meeting, waiting for the elevator, or swinging by their desk/office is how valuable relationships are started in the first place. So don’t miss the opportunity!

2. Learn ‘insider’ information

Taking the opportunity to meet and get to know new people is also a great opportunity to learn ‘insider’ information. For example, one of our members shared that while casually chatting with someone she just met at a conference about wanting to break into tech in an HR role, the person she was chatting with mentioned that his company was hiring. Even though the role wasn’t yet posted, she was able to get her foot in the door, interview, and land the position.

Voila, the power of small talk.

3. Build your professional network

Improving your ‘small talk skills’ is also an effective way to expand your professional network. It’s no secret, that having a strong professional network can be immensely powerful when it comes to closing new clients, finding mentors, and landing new jobs.

6 Ways To Improve Your Small Talk Skills 

1. Research

Small talk is often easier when you know a little bit about the person before chatting with them. For example, if you’re scheduled to attend a client dinner, doing a little LinkedIn research beforehand might reveal that you both went to the same university, which will give you a lot to talk about right off the bat!

2. Remember their NAME

Research shows that saying someone’s name creates a bonding experience, as you’re explicitly recognizing and acknowledging them as an individual. [1] It’s normal for someone to introduce themselves, and two seconds later we forget their names. Some ways to remember, are (1) to say their name back to them in the conversation as soon as possible and (2) to create associations with them (e.g Mark, the man who has been on the Masai Mara safari!). 

3. Show enthusiasm!

A phrase we like to say is ‘be interested and interesting‘. 

  • Interested: Use your body language and facial expressions to communicate that you’re interested in what they are saying. Doing things like checking your phone, iwatch, and looking over their shoulder to see if there is anyone ‘better’ to talk to is a sure way to disengage them from the conversation and leave a bad impression. 
  • Interesting: Having a conversation with someone who just has ‘yes/no’ answers is tough. Don’t be that person. Use your best judgment to share stories about yourself, your interests, goals (etc.). After all, this is how you’ll uncover commonalities that go on to build rapport. 

4. Active listening

Pay attention to what they’re saying! We can’t stress this enough. When someone else is talking it’s easy to fall into the trap to respond with a story about yourself, but try instead, to follow up with an insightful question. 

Celeste Headlee delivered a great TED talk on ’10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation’ where she encourages us to improve our listening and get better at asking follow-up questions.


5. Ask open-ended questions 

Open-ended questions are questions that typically start with: ‘who, what, where, how, why’.

Asking open-ended questions is a great way to get the other person talking.

If you feel stuck/reliant on the same superficial conversation starters (i.e. the weather, weekend plans…) here are some topics you can ask about that will give your conversation a little more substance. 

  • Their background. People enjoy talking about themselves plus getting to know about their history can reveal commonalities between you and them.
    • 💬 “Where did you go to college?’
    • 💬 “Which city did you grow up in?”
    • 💬 “What did you study in school?”
  • Their interests. This can pertain to work or their personal life. Asking about someone’s interests is a great way to get to know them on a more personal level.
    • 💬 “How do you usually spend your weekends?”
    • 💬 “Why/how did you get into this line of  work/industry?”
  • Their job/industry. This is typically appropriate at business networking events and is a great way to establish industry connections. That said, talking about work might not always be appropriate when hanging out with friends or family – so use your best judgment!
    • 💬 “What is your #1 priority at work right now?”
    • 💬 “How did your industry change during COVID?”

6. Know how to end the conversation (gracefully!) 

Ending a conversation can be tricky but when done well (and gracefully) you will avoid the common fear that many people have about small talk: ‘I don’t want to be trapped in a conversation with someone I don’t know well’.

That’s fair, especially if you’re in the middle of a busy workday. But guess what? There is a solution for that and it’s getting good at ending a conversation gracefully.

Here are some suggested phrases you can use, but edit them to make sure you come across as your authentic self.

  • 💬 “This has been great, thanks for telling me about X. Are you on LinkedIn?”
  • 💬  “I have [another meeting] starting soon, so I’m going to head out. It was nice meeting you!
  • 💬  “I’m glad we got the chance to connect over [topic]. I don’t want to dominate your time so I’ll let you go. It was great to get to know you more!”

Reframing Perspectives On Small Talk

Many people don’t think of ‘small talk’ as a skill that can be improved over time with practice. If this is an area that you want to improve on (maybe it’s your 2023 goal) two things we’d recommend:

  • i) Reframe your perspective on it. Instead of writing it off as a trivial annoyance that comes with the job, think of it as a valuable opportunity to build relationships, learn insider information and expand your professional network.
  • ii) Be intentional about improving your skills. Learn some best practices when it comes to ‘small talk’ and seek out opportunities to practice (luckily in the workplace, there will be a lot of them!).

Over time, you’ll notice that it won’t feel awkward, and who knows, you might even come to enjoy it!

Interested in becoming a member or partnering with Speak for Success for your team?

👩🏻‍💻You can register today or book a call with one of our Learning Specialists to find out how we can support you or your team. 

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