Learn with Lloyd!

Small talk does not have to be interesting to be effective.  But you can make it more interesting (or at least less intimidating or unpleasant) if you develop a few good conversational habits.

If you’re not a native English speaker, and you’re trying to build relationships with Americans, strengthening your small talk skills can be extremely helpful in your professional and personal life.  Americans prefer to socialize and do business with people they feel comfortable with; this sense of comfort is often established through light conversation that feels natural and effortless to them — it may take some unnatural effort and strain on your part, but this pain will diminish as you practice the tips presented below!

-1- Focus your attention and imagination on the person you want to talk to.  Imagine what interests or concerns them.  Use your powers of empathy: the ability to put yourself in another person’s place and see the world from their perspective.  Ask yourself what you and your conversation partner may have in common, and start exploring for shared interests.  If this doesn’t work, try commenting positively on something you noticed about your partner — something he or she just did, just said, is wearing, etc.:

“I see you’re wearing a Yankees cap.  Are you a baseball fan?”

“I heard you say you’re from Italy.  What part of Italy are you from?”

-2- Ask questions, especially information questions (those that begin with who, what, where, when, why, and how).  Information questions elicit longer, more interesting responses than simple yes/no questions.  In fact, shy people may answer a yes/no question with a simple “Yes” or “No” and stop there.  Some of the many advantages of questions are:

  • Questions focus on the other person’s attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs, so they are a selfless way to show your interest in others.
  • Once you’ve asked a question, you’ve transferred the job of keeping the conversation going to the other person.  You can relax, listen, and learn something.  What you hear and learn will give you something new to respond to, or to follow up with a more specific question.
  • Questions allow you to steer a conversation where you want it to go.  A good conversation is often guided by good questions, so if you want to avoid “boring” conversations, take the lead by asking thoughtful questions.

-3- IMPORTANT — Ask follow-up questions/comments that seem appropriate in the moment:

“Oh really?  Why?”

“When was that?”

“Where was that?”

“That’s interesting; and then what happened?”

“Wow!  How did you handle that?”

Notice these follow-up questions are open-ended: they seek more than a simple “yes” or “no.”  Since they demonstrate that you are really listening and interested in learning more about the speaker, they encourage meaningful responses and help keep the conversation flowing.

-4- Be sure to respond to any question or comment your partner offers.  He/she has just made the effort to move the conversation forward, so respond generously, with some animation.  If you find yourself stuck, use a basic response such as “That’s interesting” or “So do I” (casual but common equivalent: “Me too”) or “Neither do I” (casual: “Me neither”), and then add a related question or comment to continue the small talk chain:

A: Question or comment

B: Response + question or comment

A: Response + question or comment

B: Response + question or comment

etc.

Continuing the small talk chain takes a little effort, but it’s worth it!  You’ll make a better first impression and strengthen existing relationships if you can keep these light but important conversations going … and make them seem effortless, natural, and comfortable.

-5- Beware of asking too many questions: in small talk situations, people do not want to be interrogated.  If you’ve asked three or four questions, and your partner isn’t moving the conversation forward, consider other ways to get your partner involved:

  • Shift the focus to yourself for a while.  Comment on something that you’ve been actively thinking about, and while you’re talking, try to figure out a question related to your own interests that might engage your partner.
  • Focus on what’s happening around you.  For example, comment on something you noticed or learned about another person in the room.  But avoid gossiping (sharing personal, private, or negative information about people who are not participating in your conversation).
  • Comment on an item in the room, such as a picture on the wall, a book on a shelf, an object on a table, or the scene outside the window.  If the place is bare, picture your location geographically: where are you within the neighborhood, city, region, state, or country?  Think of one interesting aspect of the place where you both are — this is something you and your conversation partner have in common — and share it.
  • If you can’t think of anything interesting, comment on how you arrived there, whether you’ve been in the area before, and ask your partner questions on such “small” topics.

-6- Prepare for situations where you may need to small talk.  Before you arrive in a place where you’ll have to make conversation, imagine what topics might be comfortable for you to mention, and consider what kind of small talk questions people might ask you.  If you’re about to meet someone important for the first time and you want to make a good first impression, rehearse possible responses to typical or expected small talk questions in advance.

For example, if you’re scheduled for a job interview, consider the possibility that the interviewer may ask a question about how you traveled to the interview location.  Now, consider the possibility that your truthful answer at that moment could be negative — but you don’t want to get trapped into making useless negative comments while trying to make a positive first impression, especially in a job interview.  So consider telling a “white lie” (an innocent untruth), and then add a positive follow-up comment.

Let’s say you experienced some difficulties getting to an interview appointment, and right at the beginning of your conversation, the interviewer asks, “How was your trip over here?”  Which of the following responses would be more appropriate?

a) “It was fine.  Your location is quite convenient.”

b) “Oh, the subway was delayed, and the first train that came was full, so I couldn’t get on, and then….”

Since this is a job interview, not a casual chat with a colleague or friend, your best interests are served by response a).  If telling such a white lie is unnatural for you, coach yourself — rehearse such comments before you need them.  Notice the additional positive comment “Your location is quite convenient,” which helps to establish an upbeat tone and keep the small talk flowing (more on this in point 5 below).

Let’s say you had difficulty locating the building where the interview was scheduled to take place, and the interviewer happens to ask, “Did you have any trouble finding our building?”  Which of these responses would be more appropriate?

a) “No, it was pretty easy.  I really like the style of this building.”

b) “Actually, I asked two people for directions and both of them pointed me in the wrong direction, so I was lost until….”

Learn with Lloyd! Small talk plays an important role in American business culture.  However, too much of a good thing can be bad!  I got a call recently from an acquaintance who wanted to let me know that he was looking for work and wanted to know if I had any suggestions.  However, instead of getting to the point, he engaged in 10 minutes of small talk.  This would have been OK if he were a close friend, but we aren’t close, so I didn’t understand why he was asking about things like my family’s health!   

Here’s what he said: “Hi!  Long time no talk!  Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!  How have you been?  Did you go anywhere for the holidays?  So how is everything?  Are you still teaching at the university?  How’s your wife doing?  Is she still….?  Oh wow, that’s…!  And your parents — how are they doing?…  As for me, I’ve been….    And then X happened, and….   So I’m looking for a job and….  Can you give me some ideas on…?”

 I was getting impatient with the conversation, and when I finally understood that he was simply networking for useful ideas, I was eager to offer a few quick thoughts and bring the call to an end! 

Different cultures have different assumptions about making a request: the person who called me is from a culture in which 10 minutes of small talk is probably considered good manners.  If you’re from outside the USA, be aware that in requesting information, help, or favors, you’ll probably receive a warmer response from Americans if you make your request early, quickly, and directly

The conversation described above could have been more effective — and my response would have been more thoughtful and substantive — if the caller had been aware of American cultural expectations.  To start, he should have kept small talk to a minimum.  When speaking to acquaintances, associates, and colleagues — in person or on the phone — consider whether two or more of the following are true:

  1. You have a practical purpose or concrete goal for the conversation
  2. Your conversation partner is not a close friend
  3. You haven’t spoken to this person in a long time

 

If two or more of these are true, then limit your small talk to one minute or less (unless your partner initiates more small talk by asking questions).  In the case of my acquaintance, he could have made 2-3 brief small talk comments/questions — “Happy New Year!  How are you doing?  How’s your wife?” — and then moved on to the purpose of his call:

Purpose statement, part 1 — CONTEXT: “Well, the reason I’m calling you today is that I’m looking for a job and….”

Purpose statement, part 2 — REQUEST: “…I was wondering if I could ask you for any suggestions you might have about….”

When making requests or asking for favors from people whose relationship to you is cool or distant, or who may be busy or unreceptive to requests for help, get to the point early, clearly, and concisely, but also politely.  The request above features a few indirect words to soften its directness:

  • I was wondering: indirect introductory phrase
  • if I could ask you: indirect conditional, with the burden of action on the speaker “asking,” not the listener “giving”
  • any: meaning “any possible” — indicates the speaker does not assume the listener has suggestions to offer
  • might: conditional, with an implied “if” — “if you happen to have ideas, or if you can think of anything spontaneously, and if you would be willing to share your thoughts with me”

 

As this imaginary conversation continues, let’s assume YOU are the requester.  If you think the person you’ve contacted may be busy or preoccupied, or if you need the person’s full attention for more than 3 minutes, you should confirm whether this particular time is convenient for such a conversation.

Ask: “Is this a good time to talk?” 

Don’t say: “You sound/seem/look busy.  Are you busy?”  This is confusing because most people are likely to feel somewhat “busy” — and they’re not sure what “Are you busy?” really means.

* * *

If the other person indicates the time is NOT ideal or convenient, ask when a good time to talk would be.  Try to get the other person to propose a time or range of times that would suit his/her schedule.

Ask: “Would there be a better time when I could call you back?”

or: “Is there a particular time that might be more convenient for you?”

Don’t ask: “Can I call you back another time?” 

or: “Can we talk another time?”  This is slightly unpleasant because your partner can imagine the conversation resuming at some future inconvenient time.  It fails to express a desire to find a specific alternate time that would suit that person, and it invites a vague reply of “Yes” or “Sure,” which is not helpful to either of you.

* * *

If the person seems particularly busy, indicate the conversation will be short.

Say: “I just wanted to ask you a couple of specific questions.” 

or: “I just wanted to talk to you for 3 or 4 minutes.”

Don’t say: “I have so many questions I want to ask you!”   Your listener is likely to think, “Oh no!”

* * *

Email can be an excellent way to continue such a conversation.  Unlike a phone call or face-to-face conversation, email gives the recipient time to consider your message and compose a response.  In the case of my acquaintance, an email would have been more effective for both of us than a phone call.  However, the context for every conversation is unique, so use your judgment in choosing (or combining) phone, face-to-face, or email communication. 

For example, during a phone conversation you might realize that email would be efficient for sharing some particular information.  If you propose to send your partner an unsolicited (uninvited) email, refer to it in light, reader-friendly terms such as “short” or “a couple of questions.”

Ask: “Could I email you a short description of what I have in mind?”

or: “Could I email you a couple of  questions I wanted to ask you?”

Don’t say: “Let me email you more information.”  This is somewhat unwelcome because it sounds like an unwanted burden — after all, this person did not ask to be contacted and is unlikely to be eager to receive a load of unsolicited “information.”

* * *

If your conversation ends with an understanding that your partner will contact you if he/she has something of interest for you, be sure to confirm your latest phone number and email address.  

Ask: “Could I give you my email address?  It’s…, and my telephone number is…..”

or: “Let me make sure you have my latest email address.  It’s…, and my phone number is….”

Don’t ask: “Do you have my email address?”  This is slightly uncomfortable because people may not be sure they have it, or they may wonder whether you’re still using the address they may have in their contact list, and they may not be able to check their records right now.  Also, this question invites a vague reply of “I’m sure I do” or “I think so” with no real confirmation, which could result in no email following this conversation!

Even better, offer to send them a follow-up email so they have your address readily available, even if the current conversation doesn’t require a follow-up.  Then they can relax, knowing your contact information will be forthcoming, and your email message may help stimulate a thoughtful, substantive reply, which is the result you’re looking for!

Say: “I can send you a quick email so you have my latest address and telephone number.”

Don’t say: “I’ll send you a follow-up email so you can add me to your contacts.”  This is presumptuous; the term “follow-up” is fine in the workplace, but in a case requiring no follow-up, or when you and the other person are not colleagues, “follow-up” sounds too official.  Also, “so you can…” presumes that people will react in specific, prescribed ways.  Let them decide what to do with your incoming email — don’t dictate what they should do, and don’t assume they’ll do what exactly what you want or need them to do.

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Making “Yes” Easy

April 30, 2010

Learn with Lloyd!A simple technique in the art of persuasion is presenting your points or requests in small steps — manageable bits of information that your conversation/negotiation partner can readily agree with or easily say “yes” to.  Here’s an example of comments/questions designed to elicit a positive response, step by step:

Some of us in the office have recently gotten involved in helping the neighborhood around our building.  We’ve had a lot of fun doing things like A…, B…, and C…, and the response from the community has been great.  We were wondering if you might like to join us sometime.  [Hoped for response: Sure!]

Our next project is D…, and we’re going to start it this Saturday.  Would you be interested in working with us on Saturday?  [Hoped for response: Yes, that sounds interesting.]

We’re planning to meet in front of our building at 10 a.m.  Would you be available then?  [Hoped for response: Yes, I think so.]

Great!  See you then!  [Hoped for response: OK!]

* * *

We’ll examine the structure of these sentences in a moment, but first, look at this less effective approach, which  packs too much information into a single request and may be less appealing to the listener.   A quick, positive response is less likely here:

Several of us in the office are planning to do some volunteer work near our building this weekend.  Are you free this Saturday morning around 10?  [Possible response: Uh, I think I have something going on this Saturday; maybe another time.]

 * * *

Effective Persuasion — COMMENT + REQUEST Structure:

You can enhance your powers of persuasion by making it easy for the other person to say “yes.”  Below is an analysis of useful elements in the effective example at the beginning.  Notice the comment + request structure in each of the first three exchanges: instead of aiming a single question at a time, the speaker creates context with a comment and then follows it immediately with a short request (direct or implied).  Also notice how the comments get progressively narrower in scope.  Comment 1 begins with broad perspective and background information:

Comment 1: Some of us in the office have recently gotten involved in helping the neighborhood around our building.  We’ve had a lot of fun doing things like A…, B…, and C…, and the response from the community has been great.  [Introductory sentence provides background, context.  Second sentence emphasizes two positive points — “fun” and “great response” — while giving specific examples “A…, B…, and C…”]

Request 1: We were wondering if you might like to join us sometime.  [Phrased as a statement; “we were wondering if” and “might like to” are usefully indirect, conditional elements; “sometime” is usefully ambiguous, avoiding early mention of Saturdays/weekends.]

Comment 2: Our next project is D…, and we’re going to start it this Saturday.  [Offers specific description “D…”; full-day reference to “this Saturday” avoids early mention of morning start time.]

Request 2: Would you be interested in working with us on Saturday?  [Phrased as a question; “would” is a useful conditional; “interested in” focuses on the other person’s interest/feeling instead of requester’s need or demand.]

Comment 3: We’re planning to meet in front of our building at 10 a.m.  [Notice each comment is getting successively narrower.  Here the specific time “10 a.m.”  is introduced; this potentially unappealing detail is withheld until late in the conversation.]

Request 3: Would you be available then?  [Phrased as a question; “would” is a useful conditional; “available” is a relatively objective term focusing on the person’s schedule instead of any desire to get up early on Saturday!] 

* * *

Here are some more examples involving marketing or promotion of the speaker’s services:

Less effective — single question: 
Can you give me your email address?
More effective — COMMENT + REQUEST:
C:
I’d like to send you some information I think you’ll find interesting. 
R: If you give me your email address, I’ll send it to you tomorrow.

Less effective — single question: 
Can I send you some useful information about that?
More effective — COMMENT + REQUEST:
C:
I have a short description of some ways you can avoid that problem.
R: I’d be happy to email it to you.*

*Sometimes a request is implied rather than stated.  With an inquiring tone of voice, an implied request can elicit a positive response, but if necessary, the speaker can add “if you’ll give me your address” (or even more directly: “Could I email it to you?”)

Less effective — single question: 
Would you like to schedule a free initial consultation?
More effective — COMMENT + REQUEST:
C:
What we normally do at this point is arrange a meeting to learn more about a client’s needs and determine whether our services are appropriate.  This initial consultation usually takes about 30-40 minutes; it’s free and there’s no obligation to begin a project.
R: Is there a day this week that might work for you?

Less effective — single question: 
Could you refer me to other potential clients?
More effective — COMMENT + REQUEST:
C:
We’re always looking for others who could benefit from our help.
R: Can you think of anyone you know who might be interested in our services?

Packaging your points as brief comments + requests can help you get more positive responses from people whose help you need or patronage you want.

* * * * *

Learn with Lloyd! Most people you meet are patient enough to listen for a minute as you describe yourself and your current activities.  However, some people don’t want to listen for more than a minute to such a monologue, and in some situations, you have only a moment to explain yourself … before your conversation is interrupted or your listener has to leave, for example. 

So introducing yourself concisely — in a minute or less — is a valuable skill, and it’s easy to develop!  Such a self-introduction is useful for answering general questions like “What do you do?” or “What kind of work are you looking for?”  Below is a sample speech answering the question “What do you do?”  In this case, the speaker is in a relaxed social setting, so she feels free to add details to enliven the conversation.  Keep in mind that these sentences do not have to be delivered in an unbroken monologue; for example, there could be interrupting questions from the conversation partner that elicit the details that appear in the second half of the speech.

SAMPLE 1 (relaxed social setting): “I work for a non-profit cultural exchange organization called the Slavic Art Center.  We arrange tours of Russia for American artists, designers, architects, and other arts professionals who want to see the cultural treasures of Russia firsthand.  We also bring Russian arts professionals to the United States to meet with their American counterparts.  I’m responsible for travel arrangements, so I spend a lot of time booking flights, hotels, and ground transportation for our groups.  I also write some of our promotional materials.  One benefit I particularly enjoy is the chance to travel with some of our groups in Russia; in fact, I’m going there next month for ten days.  So if you know any American or Russian arts professionals, please let me know!”

Brief self-introductions are sometimes called “elevator speeches”: if you find yourself in an elevator with a potential customer, employer, or other person of interest, you might have 20 seconds, 40 seconds, maybe even 60 seconds to present yourself in a positive way, or promote your products/services or skills/background in a persuasive way.  If the person quoted above found herself in an elevator with a well-known artist or other person who could be interested in her services, she might introduce herself with a shorter, more promotional version of the speech:

SAMPLE 2 (shorter, promotional context):  “Hi, my name’s Jane Smith.  I enjoyed seeing your exhibition tonight; I especially liked the perfumed wood sculptures!  By the way, I work for a non-profit cultural exchange organization called the Slavic Art Center.  We arrange tours of Russia for American artists who want to see Russian culture firsthand.  We also bring Russian artists to the United States to meet their American counterparts.  If you think you might be interested in touring Russia with other artists, or meeting Russian artists when they visit here, I’d be happy to send you more information.”

If you’re not working, talk about your studies or other activities you’re involved in, as well as your future plans.  Here’s a sample from a relaxed social setting, answering the question “What do you do?”:

SAMPLE 3 (relaxed social setting): “I’m studying finance at NYU and planning to apply to MBA programs next year.  I’m currently researching the process of preparing IPOs — that’s initial public offerings: the first time companies offer shares of their stock on a stock market.*  I’m also doing an internship at Nanoventure, a firm that helps arrange IPOs for nanotechnology companies.  I plan to apply to NYU’s Stern Business School, and if I’m accepted, I hope to focus on corporate finance.  Eventually, I’d like to work for a venture capital firm.  I want to help identify small start-ups that could make big breakthroughs and develop innovative products.  So that’s enough about me.  What do you do?”

*Add such a brief explanation or clarification if you think your listener might appreciate it

If you’re looking for a job, market your skills/interests proactively … but concisely.  For example, you might mention a key aspect of your background, or one of your own professional interests or target areas/specialties, or a direct inquiry or question to the listener.  Here’s a sample adapted from the previous speech:

SAMPLE 4 (shorter, self-promotional context):  “Hi, my name is Sam Jones.  Congratulations on your acquisition of XYZ Corp.!  By the way, I’m doing an internship at Nanoventure, a firm that helps arrange IPOs for nanotechnology companies.  My ultimate goal is to work for a venture capital firm.  I’m just curious if there might be any opportunities for someone like me* at your firm in the near future.”

*You might substitute a descriptive phrase like “new account managers” or “business development specialists

* * *

 To develop your own elevator speech, click here for my “Brief Self-Introductions Worksheet,” which outlines the structure of the four sample speeches presented in today’s post, with blanks for you to fill in your own information.

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