BEYOND small talk —- engaging in conversation that matters

Just got back from Phoenix where I attended a Board meeting for Walden University. For-profit online university that is enjoying great success. As you probably know education is one of the businesses that grows in hard times. Walden is enjoying record growth from working adults who want to re-tool and re-position themselves. Pursuing your education , degree or not, is one of the most powerful ways of strengthening your network. Meeting and working with people who are serious about their career trajectories always opens up new ways of viewing oneself and one’s opportunities.


When people talk about small talk, they usually mean superficial, meaningless banter. You know, the lines about the weather, or the local sports team—“How about those Lakers?” Or worse, making comments about people’s clothing, “Love that dress.”  C’mon nobody likes saying or hearing these comments.  Take some comfort in the universal disdain for this process. And to a certain extent everyone struggles with the opening line moment.  However, the art of conversation is a skill that speaks volumes about you and your brand.  A Stanford University study of MBAs 10 years after they graduated showed conversation skills were far more important to their career success than the grades earned. The most successful grads were those proficient at talking to anyone—from assistants to bosses. So the art of “small talk” is not just a nice to have talent, it is essential.

First and foremost you have to minimize the fear and discomfort factor. I recently met a fundraiser who told me, “I never talk to people on planes.” I asked her why. She told me that she relishes her privacy. Okay, I can respect that, but if you subscribe to my point of view, networking is a lifestyle means you are open to connecting most of the time. I learn something from everyone I meet. Everyone is entitled to private time, down time, and quiet time. But when you choose a job where interacting with others is vital or you have a burning desire to advance your career then you have to network.  Being open to reaching out and introducing yourself is the first step. Please be sure to read my earlier post about how you introduce yourself.

Second, start with people you know but you don’t know. Colleagues at work you just see in the hallways, a family you see at church every Sunday, a fellow board member at your favorite non-profit, a parent at your kid’s school, a neighbor at the end of the block. Strike up conversations with these people who are in front of your face, may help you broaden network and sharpen your skills. It’s not always about meeting strangers.

Here are some basic tips on how to make this introductory moment easier:

1.       Be yourself: Don’t employ any lines or techniques with which you are not comfortable.  That’s  where the disconnect happens. You try to be someone you are not. So work within your personality and your strengths.

2.       Acknowledge others:  Seek eye contact. Greet people with a simple “hello” or “how are you?” It is a lost courtesy. And if you smile then you will invariably receive a pleasant response.  I found this to be the best and easiest opener. Then I listen. People say things on their minds. And then the conversation is off and running. If it stalls you move to step #3.

3.       Be aware of your environment: Current context is your key.  Where are you at the moment, what are your surroundings?What are you observing? What clues about the people are in  front of you?  Let’s say you are at a conference or a class—a place where you have things in common with the others there.  Let your curiosity guide you. Why are these people here? What are they hoping to gain? What did they think of the speaker or the teacher? So many angles to start a conversation.  You sit next to someone on a plane, or at a meeting, you notice they are carrying a book or the company logo on their briefcase or you overhear them mention their alma mater. These all are possible conversation starters. For those you know but don’t know. The focus  of the initial conversation is basic stuff, what your neighbor thinks about the recent development in the community, what the parents at the school think about the leadership etc etc Start the conversation about what is important at the moment.

4.       Let others lead the conversation:  There is a myth that these tips and techniques are making you the Larry King, Charlie Rose, or Oprah. Clearly, if you are adept at facilitating, moderating, or  interviewing then you have a big advantage. I was pushed into hosting 450 live radio shows when I was younger. I learned the hard way to listen carefully and to let the guest lead. The listeners did not want me to dominate the airwaves—just like a conversation. Sure you have questions and maybe an agenda, but conversations always digress and some of the digressions are the most revealing and insightful. If you want to be a 60 Minutes investigative reporter then you will keep the” interviewees” on track, but you will not be invited back to any events! It is much more interesting if you actually are interested in the people you meet rather than just your needs.

5.       Never say “yeah but”: After someone else speaks we have a tendency to try and top the story or tell our story without building on what has been said. Often, we are thinking, “please stop talking because I have a better story.” Instead acknowledge what has been said by commenting on what is funny or impressive about the story. Then, say “yes and” to build on what has been said. This is a classic method of improv theatre actors. To take the last line and not negate it but use it positively to advance the conversation. If you say “yeah but” then you block the conversation, as improvers would say.

The art of conversation and even “small talk” is an invaluable building block of networking.  Small talk can lead to big ideas. If you are curious, observant, open to meeting people, acknowledge what people say by listening—you will meet people who will change your life, the lives of your network, and like Stanford MBAs you will find greater success.

Thanks for reading. John

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1 thought on “BEYOND small talk —- engaging in conversation that matters”

  1. I love your blog, John.
    But not for the reasons you intend, possibly. I am not on a “career track.” I’m not trying to “advance my brand,” (my comment upon which term I’ll keep to myself…you can thank me later).
    But I love it anyway. For me, these are not lessons for being successful in a corporate environment, but for being as fully human as possible. “Say hello. Smile. Ask how someone is doing. Listen to the answer.” All good, basic stuff…and stuff we’ve somehow lost track of in our current mad rush toward survival or success.

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