Monday, 3 September 2012

Small Talk

One of the many hats I wear is that of a marketing trainer, in particular working on developing, maintaining and improving client relationships.  My clients are consultants, and often those working in infrastructure.  So they’re technical people, engineers or architects or environmental consultants.  People who would rather sit down with a technical problem than walk into a crowded room and have to make conversation.  But as part of their jobs, they have to do that.  They have to be able to talk to clients, and they have to be able to attend networking functions and “work the room.”

So one of my key tasks is to give them hints about how they do that.  They spend their days focused on the latest technologies to build bridges (to use a basic example), perhaps a bit like a parent or mother might spend their days focused on how to get their child to sleep.  So fronting up to a client who for example, might be an elected official with no technical background at all, is like seeing someone from another world.  Perhaps how a parent feels when they meet us.   

So I give them hints.  The first is aimed at establishing and then improving a lasting client relationship.  It’s also a helpful tip on “how to make friends.”  And the key is to ask questions to learn about the person you’re talking to.  If they aren’t an engineer, then you ask them about their job, what they do, where they live, where’re they’re from, and finding out what’s important to them (and it might not be their job).  This in turn helps you understand your client and learn how you can help them.  In doing that, you might find something that they both enjoy, that creates a common point of reference.  Or it simply makes for a closer, or more relaxed relationship if you can both talk about your favourite sports team, or the latest play that you both enjoyed, or the road trip or hike they took.  Simple huh? 

The second hint is more practical.  If you’re going to a function, or a meeting where there might be some mixing and mingling before they get to business, then it is worth spending 15 minutes preparing.  The easiest way to do this is to read the newspaper, take note of about three major news stories (not all about the same thing – war, or politics, but a variety of current events).  This week, for example, based on a five minute perusal of a local website, you could choose:

  • The Paralympics
  • Prince Harry in Vegas
  • Is hitch-hiking safe?
  • The rugby test this Friday
  • Spring (Autumn)

 ... and when in doubt, the weather.

There, they’re armed, ready to strike up a conversation, or join a conversation, that might be interesting, and might lead to other things you can talk about.  It doesn’t take much effort.   We're not encroaching on religion or politics.  And not one of those topics requires the use of the question “do you have kids?” 


  1. "And the key is to ask questions to learn about the person you’re talking to."

    I know this one! But do you have tips on how to NOT feel like you're interrogating someone? Seriously? I love it when conversations flow back and forth equally. I love this more than I can describe. But when they're NOT flowing, and I'm asking questions, and asking questions . . . I feel like I'm just being nosy! Its hard to expand on minimum info, so just ends up being another question

    Good advice on the 'current events'. I find StirrupQueens has some interesting 'current events' perspectives that encourage me to look up more of whats going on in the world. And of course, the good old newspaper . . .

    1. We can do only so much - if we're interrogating people, then they're not contributing. If you're the one making all the effort in a conversation, it's time to find another conversation partner!

  2. But what about those who freeze in social situations? I do that way too often- or offer irrelevant and sometimes inappropriate info.

    1. All I can suggest is being prepared with a few topics of conversation, and a few appropriate questions. So even if you freeze, you can hopefully get other people doing all the talking.

      You know, there's nothing wrong with preparing for social events. It helps. I used to be shy. (Still am depending on the situation). And I used to be a diplomat - so been there with all the social events/cocktail parties, chatting to people from different cultures, all levels of society etc. And the one thing I remember - it definitely got easier with practice.

  3. Here in Finland the safest small talk topic is THE WEATHER! :-D He he he he...Not enough snow, too much snow, yucky summer, not-too-cold winter, etc. etc. etc.

    GREAT tips on small talk, though. I used to suck at breaking the ice or even trying to break the ice (I was too passive and I preferred someone else doing it for me rather than taking the initiative), but I think I've learnt to be better in that area, esp. due to necessity (moving to Finland requires me to be bolder in making a move in order to make friends). :-)

  4. Beautifully written.

  5. As one of those socially awkward types, who has spent time reading in the online ALI community, I am pleased to say that I have (finally) developed a filter to prevent me from asking people if they have kids. So, take heart - progress can be made!