By Wes O’Donnell
From an uncomfortable seat on an airplane to the company holiday party, small talk is unavoidable.
For many of us, especially the more introverted, small talk is not only awkward, but it’s also painful! And while it may be more comfortable to say the bare minimum, you would be missing out on a huge opportunity to make new friends, reinforce old relationships, and network.
Let’s face it, everyone says the same thing when engaging in small talk. But with a little verbal jiu-jitsu, you can not only appear more confident, charismatic, and engaged but perhaps even create new business opportunities.
I can often predict what someone will say when they sit down next to me on an airplane if they say anything at all. Strangers who don’t initially make eye contact with you typically won’t say anything. For those that do, the first words for many are “How are you?”
According to Gary Burnison, “’How are you’ are the three most useless words in the world of communication. The person asking doesn’t really want to know, and the person responding doesn’t tell the truth. What follows is a lost opportunity and a meaningless exchange with zero connection.”
If you are meeting someone that you already know, perhaps at a company function, use your knowledge of the person to open with a more detailed greeting. For instance, “Hi Jennifer, great to see you! I bet your kids are getting big.”
Everyone loves to talk about themselves. It’s human nature. You will always come across as more charismatic when you take a genuine interest in the life of your conversation companion.
Opening with strangers is a little more difficult, but by no means hard. My favorite cold open is “Hi, you remind me of a famous actor [or actress], I just can’t put my finger on who. Is there anyone you relate to?” What follows is usually a humorous and authentic conversation.
I used this line on a gentleman while sandwiched between two strangers on a flight from Chicago to Detroit. The result was amazing. Once the conversation started, the woman on the other side of me joined in and I disembarked with two new business contacts and a couple of free Detroit Red Wings tickets from the man.
But I could have just as easily put in my earbuds and read Sky Mall for the 30-minute flight; perhaps complain on social media later about the lack of elbow room in my middle seat.
Which one do you think was more fulfilling for me?
Stop Talking About the Weather
Unless you are an actual meteorologist, avoid discussing “this crazy weather we’re having.” This tired, recurring motif is always a conversation opener or closer. For instance, I have a beloved family member in Texas with who I speak at least once a week. I can tell when he has run out of things to say because, like clockwork, he asks about the weather “up there” [in Michigan].
The goal here is to avoid dead-ends in conversation and the weather almost always leads to an awkward stop. Imagine riding in an elevator with a complete stranger and he says “Man, it’s bitter cold out there today, huh?”
I appreciate his attempt, but it doesn’t really leave me anywhere to go with the conversation. I suppose I could always disagree after all the weather is subjective; some people like the cold. But to be agreeable, I would probably answer with “sure is” and then continue to stare awkwardly at the floor numbers as they count down.
By the way, what would happen if you were in an elevator with a complete stranger, realized you wanted to say something to them and instead of wasting time thinking about what to say, you just turned to them and said “I’m trying to think of the right thing to say to you right now!”
That would feel so authentic and vulnerable that I guarantee it would lead to a great conversation. Acknowledging the awkwardness of small talk and turning it into something humorous is always a great tactic for a conversation opener.
Leave the weather to Al Roker.
Take in Your Surroundings
Always take in your surroundings as there is always going to be a conversation enhancer within visual range. Are you in a colleague’s office and she has a model of a race car on her desk? You might say “That’s really cool. What’s the story behind that race car?”
Being situationally aware of your surroundings while simultaneously being in the moment of a conversation takes practice. You don’t want it to look like your eyes are wandering as it could be perceived as boredom with the conversation.
Even if you are just two people mingling at an office party, their clothes will have something unique [a pin, a tie, cuff links] that could serve as a great springboard for a great question that will result in unique answers. The key here is to be enthusiastic about things that would otherwise be mundane. That enthusiasm is contagious.
During a conversation, we are all guilty of just waiting until it’s our turn to talk. To truly get the most out of small talk, you have to be engaged. This includes actually listening so that your response is dialed in.
Body language plays a big role here. Sincere nodding, eye contact, and leaning in [not too far] all go a long way to show that you are engaged. I have had conversations where the other person’s eyes start darting around the room or their feet start pointing toward the door.
I usually take that as a sign that I need to end the conversation quickly. Either I’m boring them, or they really need to go to the restroom.
When it’s your turn to talk, go into more details than the bare minimum. You don’t just live in Southern California and are going to school for engineering. You live in Southern California because you love the gorgeous weather and study engineering because you are fascinated with the way things work.
These types of details open the door to more unique answers that could result in opportunities that would not have otherwise presented themselves.
Close Big and Be Grateful
A lot of people don’t know how to end a conversation. Many of us think we need to keep the conversation going or risk looking rude.
In the formal settings of meetings or conference calls, it always ends with “next steps” and “thanks for everyone’s time.”
Why not use “next steps” and a “thank you” in an informal setting as well?
When a conversation is coming to a natural end, it might be useful to say that you would love to discuss what you talked about again in the future [next steps] and end with a thankful closer like “Wow, it was so awesome talking to you. I’m grateful that we had this opportunity” or “I really learned a lot” [thank you].
“Thank you” and “thanks” are overused as conversation-enders. Swap them out with something unique and stand out with “I’m grateful” followed by why you’re grateful.
Instead of just a boring “thanks” how about “I’m grateful we had a chance to talk because I now understand __________ a lot better.”
This minor switch will really go a long way in making the other person feel valuable when they are around you. This, in turn, increases your social appeal.
It’s perfectly fine to disengage; after all, time is valuable. Unlike money, once time is gone, it’s gone forever. Don’t be afraid to end the conversation, just end it on a good note.
We are social machines and conversation is the fuel that keeps us going. How you perceive small talk will dictate your enjoyment of it.
Stop thinking of small talk as a necessary chore and start seeing it as the opportunity it is. Get the other person to talk about themselves. A recent Harvard study found that in a dating scenario, those who asked more questions of their partner were better liked by their conversation partners.
Ask questions, find unique topics, and be authentic to turn small talk into success.