The Big Value of Small Talk:

Tips for making conversation at annual association conferences, company meetings or just about anywhere!

Chase’s famous Calendar of Events tells us that June is, among other things, Effective Communications Month. Great! So how does that relate to small talk? Well, June is also a “biggie” month for annual conferences, company meetings and the likes–events where there’s bound to be big, serious and (hopefully) effective communications, as well as at least some small talk. Some people abhor business-event small talk, preferring to watch paint dry rather than partake. Others see it as a necessary evil…”can’t go under it, can’t go over it, gotta go through it”; while yet even others see the serendipitous value and important direction in which seemingly shallow chatter can lead.

Consider this (if you knock the big value of small talk): a study at the Stanford University School of Business tracked MBAs 10 years after they graduated. The result? Grade point averages had no bearing on their success, but their ability to converse with others did!

How many times in your life have you discovered amazing connections, or tripped over fabulous opportunities, all because you were willing to engage in a little conversation? Probably more than you realize. Here’s one of my serendipitous small talk experiences, inspiring cause for pause and wonder (excerpted from my new book, Getting Passion Out of Your Profession: How to keep loving your living…come what may, p. 109):

During another of my visits to England, we lunched in a grand old inn in Richmond. When I opened my mouth to place my order, the server politely asked if I was American. “No…I’m Canadian”, I replied, but comforted her by sharing that it was an honest mistake on her part and that, in many cases, only a North American or trained ear could distinguish the difference. To my response she jovially reported, “Our chef is from Canada!” “No kidding! Bring her out here I’d like to say hello!”, came my amazed reply.” Out trotted this 20 something young Canadian woman (who was cooking her way through Europe). She thought it was great fun having Canadian guests that afternoon. Of course we got to talking about the typical, “Where are you from” stuff. She answered, “Toronto”. “Me, too” was my reply (but not so surprising because Toronto has the largest population of the entire country). I went on, of course, to ask her, “What neighbourhood?”, to which she replied, “The Annex”. Then–you guessed it–what did I say next? “Me too!” Well of course we went on to confess our actual street names and, once again–you guessed it…what did we both discover? We lived on the same street 10 doors away from one another for the past ten years and never knew! What are the odds? I went all the way to England, to a little town up the Thames River, only to discover a Canadian neighbour–from my very own street–cooking my Saturday afternoon lunch! And this wouldn’t have even been revealed to us if we’d not acted and followed up on small-talk, curiosities, self-disclosed and listened for more information. Think about one of your own incredibly “small world/small talk” stories right now. Amazing, isn’t it? You really are more connected than you think.”

You just never know where small talk may lead. Here are 10 suggestions for making small talk count:

small talk

1. Take Chances: Converse with all kinds of people with whom you cross paths: “strangers” in your building from other companies, shopkeepers, cashiers, servers, tellers, people in line with you at the grocery store/bus stop, neighbors (especially those with whom you generally don’t connect–and why is that, anyway???), co-workers inside your own organization, people in elevators, in the washroom (some of the best conversations and information sharing can happen there!), people way older or way younger than yourself. Even tourists! One day this past March I spotted a couple hovering over a city map spread atop a newspaper box. I approached asking, “Are you first time visitors to the city? Is there anything I can help you with…point you in the right direction? Indeed, they were…from Switzerland! Turns out they were from an obscure hamlet in the Alps which I visited on a ski trip in 1974! Imagine that.

2. Read Beyond Your General Interest: Occasionally pick up a book or magazine, business junk mail/catalogue, etc., that you generally disregard. If you’re of one gender, browse the likings of the other while next sitting and waiting on your doctor, dentist, mechanic, etc.. Get a new take on situations and events and broaden your general knowledge on a diversity of subjects not normally of interest to you. The time will come where you can whip out that piece of obscure information during some soon-to-be-experienced small talk conversation and turn that exchange into something of greater intrigue and substance. Everything is a source of information that can be used in a small talk situation, sooner or later. Remember, the more diverse your knowledge the more diverse your small talk.

3. Set Yourself Up: At your next annual association conference, in-house workshop or staff professional development day, rather than sitting with those you know (who’ll keep you safe and cocooned from others), sit with “strangers”. If you feel the need, share with your friends or colleagues that you’re sitting apart on purpose, so that you can expand your network and practice your finesse at creating interesting small talk.


4. Have Some Handle on a Diversity of Current Sporting and Cultural Events and Topics: If you’re Canadian (or even American, for that matter) know that the Stanley Cup (hockey) Playoffs are fast coming to an end–Edmonton Oilers versus North Carolina’s Hurricanes. You don’t even have to like or understand hockey–just know that it’s happening right now. Internationally, the mega event of World Cup Soccer has begun, too. Do you know which team is favoured to win? Which is the dark horse? Which player the New York Times Sports Magazine calls, “The World’s Most talented and Lethal Soccer Player”?

5. Read a Respected Newspaper at Least a Couple of Times a Week (if not every day): Read a publication that’s related to your profession or industry once in a while, too, e.g. Your Association’s monthly or quarterly journal. If travelling on the job, and if you know you’ll be engaging in small talk with people (eg. clients, colleagues in regional offices, etc.) in their own town, read the local paper, watch the local news and listen to the local radio station. This I know: you’ll often be the first to share important “small-talk” style local information that your local receiver is glad to hear!

6. Listen up: Most people in small talk situations can’t help but reveal tidbits of information about themselves. Listen up and ask follow-up questions. For example, a lovely gentleman–a member of the service department at my car dealership, who knows how to demonstrate customer service excellence in spades–told me back in April that he’d be retiring on June 1, 2006 (after 35 years of service). He expressed he’s felt under valued, under appreciated and under-respected by the second-generation owner leadership of his unenlightened employer for quite sometime now, so he’s pleased to go. He just knew there’d be no fanfare for him–and, as it turned out, only the actually staff arranged and sponsored a potluck dinner to celebrate his tenure–not his actual company, nor did they foot the bill. I made a note, and personally delivered some “Happy Retirement” Balloons, a card and chocolates on his last day. Brother! If his employer can’t give him a proper, nice send off, at least his appreciative customers can. Listen to what others share, remember what they say and if you are so inspired, and can, offer little known or interesting information, or help in relation to what they share.

small talk

7. Ask questions: The easiest way to start a conversation is to ask a question. In my work, eg. speaking at association and company conferences, etc., wherever possible, I speak with some of the audience before we actually start. For me, a good opening question of “hello”, that always leads to conversation is, “Have you travelled far to be here today?” People will then tell me they’ve come from just across town or from across the country. In many cases they have, indeed, travelled far; the next question is often some personal experience, feeling or knowledge I have of their hometown. Another is, “How long have you been a member of this association, organization, etc.?” Again, whether a young whippersnapper or an old timer, their response usually leads to further informative dialogue.

8. Be intersted instead of Interesting: Show sincere and patient interest in what another has to say and watch what happens next. Here’s another brief excerpt from my new book, in this regard:

“One of Warren Bennis’ axioms is that a leader should be able to bring out the best in those around him. In making that case, Warren loves to cite an old story about the difference between 19th-century British Prime Ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. It was said that, when you had dinner with Gladstone, you left feeling he was the wittiest, most brilliant, most charming person on earth. But when you had dinner with Disraeli, you left feeling that you were the wittiest, most brilliant, most charming person on earth. In this respect, Bennis and Disraeli are exactly alike. Warren’s magnificently fine-tuned ‘personal radar’ makes him extremely sensitive and receptive to what other people are thinking, feeling and saying. I’ve never encountered a person who is a better listener who has that rare ability to make you feel as though you were the only person in the world.” (by Steven B. Sample, the 10th president of the University of Southern California, as it appeared in the Autumn, 2000 edition of “USC Trojan Family Magazine: The Art and Adventure of Collaborating with Warren Bennis”). In a nutshell, to be interesting, be interested.

9. Smile: It’s always easier to be drawn into conversation with someone who’s smiling. On the other hand, sometimes, I find myself drawn to the person who looks gruff on the outside, just to see if I can get them smiling. Nine times out of ten, I can…and it turns out they’re lovely people…they just had to notify their faces! Along with the smile, challenge yourself to take the initiative–be the first to say, “Hello!” and always, in stand-up situations, extend your hand upon greeting and maintain eye contact while chatting.

10. Know when time’s up: Small talk during a sit down meal is one thing, but if you’re standing and mingling while partaking in business small talk, consider the advice of Susan RoAne, author of “Mingling Maven,” who suggests your objective in all encounters should be to make a good impression and leave people wanting more. To do that, she advises: “Be bright. Be brief. Be gone.”

So how about it? Next time you find yourself at a association conference, all staff event, grand family wedding or even in the park walking your dog, be receptive–or even initiate–a little small talk and see what big results may occur. At the very least initiating or participating in interesting small talk may put a smile on your face for the rest of the day and, at the very most–who knows–it may lead to new long term business (or other) relationships, or new career opportunities.

A single conversation across the table with a wise man
is better than ten years mere study of books.

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Don’t knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people
couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change once in a while.

–Kin Hubbard

Confidence contributes more to conversation than wit.

–François de la Rochefoucauld

To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well,
and is as essential to all true conversation.

–Chinese Proverb

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