Hopefully, this will make participating in it easier and less daunting. And yes, I know that some of you already find small talk easy and non-daunting, but the rest of us can use all the help we can get!
Why It’s Important to Say Inconsequential (Small!) Things When You Make Small Talk
A quick, true story: I have a wonderful hair stylist, Wendy Smith, the owner of Brooklyn’s Salon Bohemia, and I love the fashion-forward, sometimes punk sensibility of her salon.
Recently, I was waiting for a haircut when a woman of about my age came and sat down next to me. She opened an industry style book, which she’d pulled from a nearby box, started flipping through it, turned to me and said,
I hate the way these kids look, with their tattoos and crazy hair colors. Some of them would be good-looking if they weren’t so extreme.
My thought, truthfully, was, “Lady, are you out your cotton-pickin’ mind? You’re talking to someone with a visible tattoo and a purple streak in her hair and you thought that was a conversation starter?”
But, really, who can be bothered with educating a stranger. So I looked at her. I looked away. And I went back to whatever I was reading (probably a romance novel, or William Gibson’s latest, The Peripheral).
She should have opened with the weather, or maybe, “Do you come here often?”
Keep the Point of Small Talk in Mind
Small talk is not a conversation.
Small talk is an activity that two people engage in to decide whether or not they want to have a conversation!
Think of it as an audition.
You’re auditioning some other person for the role of Conversational Partner* and they’re auditioning you for the same thing.
What’s the best way to blow this audition?
Make it controversial.
Lead with a loaded question or comment about race… religion… politics… or (in my case) how today’s young people style themselves!
“Have the Courage of Your Clichés”
This advice comes from Leil Lowndes, whose audio course Conversation Confidence also introduced me to the phrase Conversational Partner* (she calls it CP for short).
The point Leil’s making — and I couldn’t agree more — is that clichés have their place, and that place is in small talk!
Let’s go back to the woman I met at Salon Bohemia. You may think that “Do you come here often?” is a pathetic conversation-starter, but here’s how things would have gone if she’d used it:
HER: Do you come here often? [And yes, a line like this is best delivered with a slightly ironic style that indicates you’re using the time-honored cliché intentionally!]
ME: Yes, I’ve been a client of Wendy’s for almost 20 years.
HER: Oh, this is my first visit. Which one is Wendy?
ME: Over there, in that killin’ black outfit. She owns the salon.
HER: I didn’t know that. My appointment is with Aisha.
ME: Aisha used to do my daughter’s hair. She’s an excellent stylist, too; they all are.
HER: Well, I have to tell you, this is kind of a stretch for me. I have pretty conservative fashion taste, but my friend raved about this place, so I thought I’d try it.
ME: Well, you don’t have to worry. This is a very professional outfit. If you tell them you want a conservative look, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
HER: Thanks, that’s reassuring. I have to confess, I’m not crazy about how some of these people look.
ME: (laughing) I love it, but not everyone has to! Just be clear with them about what you want, and you’ll be fine.
If You Start Small Talk with Inconsequential Things, You Can Always Move On To Deeper Topics
Notice that my CP (conversational partner) and I still disagreed on whether the punk sensibility is attractive or not. But because, in this hypothetical example, we were able to smoothly glide up to that issue, our differences weren’t a barrier to further conversation.
From here, we could easily move onto a deeper exchange, whether about our children, our careers, or how we think personal styles of adornment reflect (or don’t reflect) political views.
The point of SMALL TALK is to not close anything off by coming on too strong too soon with an opinion or attitude that might alienate your potential CP.
As a highly opinionated person myself, I understand that — for some of us — this takes discipline. But the first step in succeeding with small talk is to embrace the challenge of making it SMALL.
There’s time enough to cross opinions and swords after you’ve decided that your CP is someone you’d like to continue talking to!
In 25 years of speaker coaching, I’ve helped my individual speaker coaching clients develop their strengths and skills to become authentic and effective communicators.
Along the way, I’ve developed tips for everything from small talk to speaking up in meetings, from managing fear to making an impact.
And now, I’ve shared it all in 100 Top Public Speaking Tips: The Book. This beautifully designed PDF booklet is searchable, clickable, and categorized, so that you can find what you need, instantly.