The Secrets -- and the Good News -- about Small Talk

"Small talk is a quick way to connect on a human level, which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insist."-- Lynn Coady

Why should you care about making small talk?

Have you ever avoided a networking event, where you needed to introduce yourself to strangers and initiate conversations? Or maybe you went to the event but stayed close to the people you already knew, which meant you didn't meet anyone new, which was the whole point of going?
If we were to take a poll in those situations, most people would admit to a similar discomfort. However, if you're the one who makes the move, gets that conversation started, others appreciate it and they appreciate you. And, while you don't know what will come of it -- it may be something great or not much at all -- you will never find out if you don't try.
Have you ever wished you could get to know someone better in a business context -- a client? a colleague? a boss? -- but not known how to do it? If so, you can either learn to make small talk or you can continue to suffer through those uncomfortable situations and missed opportunities.
Have you ever avoided a work-related social activity because you didn't know what to say? Small talk often functions as warm-up talk that helps you get to know (and hopefully like) each other better. These conversations can lead to deeper conversations and stronger relationships.

How are you thinking about small talk?

If you've been thinking "I hate small talk" or "What a waste of time," you will need a new mindset if you want to develop the skills.
Begin by taking the pressure off yourself. Nobody is going to judge how witty or insightful you are. It's not a competition. It's just "informal, friendly conversation" (says Merriam-Webster), as you discover what you two have in common.
It is simply about taking a sincere interest in the other person, inviting them into a conversation, and being willing to share yourself as well. That's the mindset!

How can you develop your small talk skills?
You may not realize it, but you're already making small talk. When you greet a friend or relative you haven't seen in a while, you probably don't launch right into a serious discussion. You start with "How are you?" and "What have you been up to?" Now you just need to start doing the same thing in the business context.

Start wherever you are. If you're comfortable making small talk in some business situations, experiment with it in other business situations. If you feel like you're starting from scratch, begin by:

Making eye contact, smiling, offering your hand, introducing yourself;
Making a comment (for example, state the obvious, such as,"This is quite a turnout tonight");
Asking a question (for example, "Have you been to this event before?");

Think of it as a game of ping pong, with the conversational ball going back and forth between the two of you.
Be willing to talk about lots of different topics, especially the ones raised by the other person.
Each time you try to make small talk, take note of the fact that you lived through the experience. Each time you do it, it will get easier.
Why is small talk worth the effort?
People prefer to do business with people they know, like and trust. Small talk is a way to show that you're interested in the other person beyond just, "Let's do business."
Putting others at ease makes it more likely that person is going to open up to you. Taking a real interest in them and sharing yourself is going to foster trust and increase your influence. In contrast, getting down to business immediately leaves out the human connection.
Small talk offers you a way to build human connections while building business. And the good news is you'll get better with practice.


Just take an authentic interest in the other person, invite them into a conversation, and be willing to share yourself. Give it your best, and you'll reap the rewards.

Why Listening is an Excellent Investment

"I remind myself every morning: nothing I say this day will teach me anything.  So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening."
-- Larry King

Listening: Why We Don't
(and the thoughts we're thinking when we're not)

There are many reasons we don't listen. Frequently it's because we're busy thinking! Do any of these distracting thoughts seem familiar?
I'd prefer to be talking. ("I'm more interesting." "Wait until you hear what happened to me!")
I'm busy getting ready to talk. ("I'm thinking about what I'm going to say." "I'm preparing my counter argument.")
I'm not that interested. ("I know what you're going to say." "Why do you ramble on and on?")
I'm somewhere else. ("I'm still in the meeting I just came from." "Please hurry up, I have so much to do.")

Listening: The Return on Investment

Listening is a great investment, with substantial benefits.
When we listen, we get better information.
When we listen, we invite a richer dialogue. When people feel listened to, they're more likely to go deeper. They feel more trusting and they are more forthcoming.
Unfortunately, people who don't listen are sometimes "the last to know." People who could give them valuable information, who haven't felt heard in the past, stop trying to tell them what they need to know.
When we listen, it saves time and money.
Do you ever think back to a conversation and wonder what the person said about a topic or what a particular comment meant? If so, you can either take the time to go back and ask for the same information again or you can guess at the answer.
Whether someone is explaining a complex topic, giving instructions, or conveying sensitive information, it saves time and money to be fully present. That's the time for listening, asking questions and getting clarification, rather than having to revisit what we didn't get the first time.
When we listen, we're more effective.
When we listen deeply, we understand better the problem a potential client needs solved, or exactly what a customer is looking for, or what really ails our patient. When we listen, we can be more helpful to our colleagues, truly discern what our boss is asking for, or perceive the guidance our report needs from us.
When we listen, we build better relationships.
When we listen, it is not just to understand the content, it is to understand the person, their perspective, what matters to them. Listening builds better relationships in our work world because it conveys: "I see you; I hear you; I respect you."

Listening: How to Do It

Start one conversation at a time. Choose a type of conversation or a person to whom you want to listen more closely.
Build in some reminders. This may be the hardest part: remembering to listen. Create some ways that will work for you. A note on your calendar next to their name? Something on the top of your agenda?
Be right there and nowhere else. If the conversation is important enough to take your time, it deserves your full attention. Push away all other thoughts.
Be other-focused. Give all your attention to the other person when they're talking. Hear each word, the tone of their voice, watch their facial expressions, their movements. What information are you noticing, in addition to their words? If your attention wanders, gently bring it back. Take notes if that's helpful.
Reflect on the experience. How did you do? Did you have a more valuable experience? Were there some better outcomes?
Whether you've been thinking about the topic of listening lately or not, I hope this article stimulated your curiosity. Consider experimenting, to find out if it's a skill (and a habit) you'd like to build. It couldn't be wrong!

Telling Business Stories for Better Conversations, Meetings and Presentations

"People don't want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith - faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell." -- Annette Simmon

Business stories are different because they always have a purpose. We tell them because we want to create more connection with our listeners. We tell them because the messages they convey will more likely be heard, understood and remembered. We tell them because we want something to happen.
We tell business stories in the workplace to influence people.
Here are a few of the ways your stories can influence people:
1. A story can influence the culture of your organization by, for instance, strengthening certain values. Perhaps you want to inspire your team to listen more closely to their customers. You could ask them to do that, send around an e-mail reminder, or put up a sign that says, "Listen." But wouldn't it be more effective to tell your team about a time you listened closely and really understood what your customer was saying, created something that responded precisely to their needs, and won the customer's loyalty? Or you could tell about the time you didn't listen and you lost the customer.
2. A story can convince a patient or a client to think differently or feel differently or do differently. A doctor might lecture her patient about the health risks of a certain behavior, but who wants to lecture? Or be lectured to? Alternatively, the doctor might tell a story about someone similar to the patient who changed that behavior and is now living a healthier life. A coach might tell a story that helps their client see things from a different perspective.
3. A story can demonstrate the benefits of your product or services to a potential client or customer. If you are engaged in a marketing conversation, it might not advance the ball much to say, "This is what I can do for you" or "Oh yes, I can definitely solve your problem." (Your competitors are probably saying the same thing!) But sharing a story about how you've worked with other people (perhaps just like them), what you've done for them, or how you've solved their problems will more effectively convey your unique approach and value.
4. A story can bring data to life. Sometimes we share what we know in glorious detail, all the numbers and facts, replete with charts, graphs, and PowerPoint. But your listeners haven't spent nearly as much time examining and analyzing that data as you have -- that's why they're looking to you as the expert. Even carefully-organized detail may fly by too quickly for them to appreciate its significance. On the other hand, a story -- which may or may not include the same detail -- can convey the significance of that data, make the complex clear, and leave the listener with a memorable takeaway.
5. A story can make the difference in high-stakes situations.
Imagine a judge who is listening to two attorneys, each trying to persuade him to rule in their client's favor. One attorney describes the facts precisely and explains brilliantly why the legal precedents require a ruling in his client's favor. The other attorney does a similarly good job explaining the facts and the law, but also weaves those facts into a compelling story that explains why a ruling in her client's favor is the fair and just result. Which way is the judge more likely to rule?
We all have business stories to tell, stories with a purpose. I hope that one of these examples reminded you of stories you can tell -- to create more connection with others and to get your message across more powerfully.