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! 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

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 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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