rde5582_hiThere is nothing small about small talk. In fact, most professionals find small talk difficult and will do almost anything to avoid it. They would much rather talk about their work than engage in small talk with their clients, peers or potential clients.

And yet, small talk is an essential part of business communication whether you’re looking to get a job, get promoted, work with clients or clinch that next lucrative business deal.

Small talk allows you to:

  • Break the ice with someone and make them feel comfortable
  • Establish a connection with that person
  • Talk about general matters more superficially, for example, the weather, sport, travel and so on
  • Show politeness towards the other person

As Scott Hoover, Associate Professor of Finance at Washington & Lee University says: “In trying to generate business, the deal pitch is obviously critical. What is not so obvious is that simple, seemingly innocuous conversation with potential clients can be just as important. Companies want to hire people who can think on their feet,” (Source: The Etiquette School of New York)

It’s interesting that Professor Hoover uses the expression “think on their feet” when referring to small talk. Macmillan Dictionary defines the expression as to “have good ideas and make decisions quickly in a difficult situation”. Would you describe small talk as a difficult situation? For many business people, it is, even more so when it is in a foreign language like English.

So how can we feel more comfortable when engaging in small talk? First of all, let me share ten tips that you can use in both your native language and in English. Some of these tips refer to non-verbal communication, but where they refer to verbal communication, I’ll give you some expressions in English you can use.

1.Body Language
What you do is as important as what you say. Your body language speaks volumes about the sort of person you are. An open stance in posture, good eye contact and a warm friendly smile show your interest and desire to communicate.

2.Be The First To Say Hello
Be the first to say hello or to introduce yourself and ask an open-ended question. This not only shows confidence and interest in the other person, but it will also allow you to guide the conversation. This could be extremely helpful especially when you’re not so sure about your English. It’s much easier to start a conversation than to answer a question that you might not understand.

Some phrases for introducing yourself:

Hello, may I introduce myself? My name is ……

Hello, let me introduce myself…….

Open-ended questions:

“How do you know our host?”

“What do you think of this spectacular view?”

“Could you explain to me how this … works?”

“That is such an interesting name. How do I pronounce it?

Cultural Hint: Be aware of cultural differences in what is considered comfortable communicating distance. For most people and cultures, a span of about three feet between new acquaintances is about right.

3. Begin with statements or questions
about the immediate environment, situation, weather, how the person arrived at your location, et cetera.

Did you have any problems getting here?

Do you work near here?

Are you staying near the conference centre?

A compliment is also a great way to start a conversation.

“I love your tie!”

“That’s a beautiful necklace. It’s so unusual”.

“I love your articles in …..”

“I am a huge fan of your blog..”


4. Be well-informed and prepared
Read newspapers and magazine articles so that you are prepared to talk about what is going on in the world. Go prepared with topics or experiences you could discuss that you think will be of interest to the people you will be meeting. This is especially important if you’re looking to make a good impression with senior people.


5. Focus on the other person and less on yourself.
This will make the other person feel important and help you feel less self-conscious. This is especially helpful when engaging in small talk in English as a foreign language.


6. Actively listen to the other person
Don’t get distracted. Be present. Actively listen to what the person is saying.
Tune in to facts, feelings, key words, free information, and implied statements that suggest topics of interest or common experiences.

Listen for phrases or words that create a mental picture.

For example, “…going on a dream holiday,“…excited about a new project,” “I can’t wait to…”, “….just written an e-book on….”

When you hear a word or phrase that triggers a picture, simply ask something like:

“You mentioned that you spent time in Chicago! What were you doing there?”

“Kuala Lumpur! That’s where I grew up. How did you like working there?”

“Valencia! That’s my favourite city. How long were you there for?”

Truly listening to someone is the highest compliment you can pay them.


7. Keep the tone light and positive.
Don’t talk about anything negative like political corruption, the problems of hiring good staff and so on.


8. Discuss general- interest subjects
Topics such as films, sports, travel, theatre or books. These show that you are friendly and have other interests outside your area of business. You can also use these topics to disclose something about yourself by adding little snippets of information about your background and interests. That way you reveal yourself in a positive and interesting way.

“When I was growing up in . . . “

“In my spare time I enjoy . . . “

“One of my favorite things to do is . . . “

“I spent about ten years working for a big company before starting my own business. “

“I’ve been working as a … for many years.”

Hint: Let the other person know of any interests or experiences that you think you may have in common.


9. Think before you speak
Apart from stopping you from saying something you shouldn’t, this will make you look thoughtful. It will also give you time to think of how to say the phrase in English.


10. Always close the conversation
Don’t simply walk away from the conversation with a mumbled “must go”. Ending a conversation is as important as starting it. It will leave a positive impression of you with the people you meet.

First, say a few words about an interesting topic that the other person discussed. Then add that you’ve enjoyed the chat. Look at the person, smile, shake hands, and use his or her name. Finally, if you want to, suggest that the two of you talk again soon. Offer your business card. Then ask the other person how you might reach him or her. The following example shows how to end a conversation the right way and leave a positive impression:

“Pat, it was really fun talking about the mystery you are reading. By the way, I belong to a mystery book club where a small group of us sit around and talk about what we’ve been reading. If you are interested in meeting some other mystery buffs, I’ll let you know the time and place of our next get-together [Look for a nod, smile, and agreement to this invitation.] How can I get in touch with you? Great! Speak soon. Bye.” (Source: Mastering the Art of Small Talk)

Here are some other phrases:

“It’s been great talking to you…….”

“I really enjoyed hearing about ……”

“It was a pleasure to meet you…..”

“Good luck with the project ……”

Next time you find yourself in a situation that requires small talk, try these tips out and let me know how you got on. Also, please share with me in the comments box what tips you’ve used that have worked for you. I’d love to hear from you.

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Ciao for now