You’ll do more business, and better business, if you make small talk and connect with your clients, colleagues, higher-ups, and prospects — and it’s easy if you embrace a technique that I call respond and return.
Before we look at how, though, let’s clear up a matter of protocol:
How Do You Know Whether or Not to Make Small Talk?
In business situations, the higher-status person — in other words, the person with the most power — decides whether or not to make small talk in any given situation.
Who is this person?
- Within your company, firm, or organization, anyone whose title outranks yours is higher status.
- If your organization is flat (not much hierarchy), or you’re meeting with a group of peers, whoever controls the matter at hand, whether they’re leading a meeting or organizing a project, has higher status.
- If you’re meeting with a client, they have higher status.
- And if you’re a vendor, contractor, or independent professional who’s seeking work from a prospective client, everyone on the client side has higher status than you do.
Here’s an example:
If you walk into your boss’s office and she asks how your weekend was, don’t just mumble “OK” and change the subject (unless it’s clear that she really doesn’t want to know).
The Two-Step “Respond and Return” Approach to Small Talk
1. First, respond to your bosses’s question about your weekend with a brief, high-level comment, such as:
It was great! Nice and quiet.
I had the best weekend ever!!!
You can add one or two details to this quick summary, but keep your answer general and small.
2. Then, return the conversational “ball” to the other person
The classic (and foolproof!) way to do this is by asking:
How about you? How was your weekend?
Your boss may want to do one round of this, or six, but either way, the same rule applies: The higher status person will signal when it’s time to end the small talk and get down to business.
How Do You Make Small Talk with Someone You’re Pitching?
With business prospects, it’s even more important to be sensitive to how they want to do small talk.
Be prepared to respond and return to “small-talk certified” questions such as:
If you’ve traveled to them: Did you have any trouble finding the place? (“No, your directions were excellent. How long have you been at this location?”)
If you’re on a video call: How’s the weather where you are? (“Pretty dreary. It’s been raining for days. How’s the weather in New York?”)
At the end of every round of small talk, wait for your prospect’s signal; they’ll let you know if they want to go another round.
And be ready to jump right into business as soon as they make the shift.
How to Take the Lead with Small Talk
If your client, prospect, or higher-up doesn’t jump into business but doesn’t seem to have a small talk topic at hand, feel free to comment on:
- Their office (“You have a great facility. How many people work here?”)
- The view (“What a wonderful view! Are you ever tempted to just stare out the window all day?)
- Whatever you see on their video screen. (“Wow, that’s a great piece of art hanging behind you!”)
Anything that you can see during a business meeting or video call is fair game; if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be on display. (“What beautiful kids!” “Is that a golf trophy on your desk?” “That’s a great picture of you with the Governor!”)
Notice that, in this case, Respond and Return begins with you reacting to something about them instead of something they said.
Either way, this is a simple, no-stress technique that will help you feel comfortable and competent to make small talk in any business situation.