Small talk can get big results — but only if you know how to use it. According to Psychology Today, up to 50 percent of the population may consist of introverts, who are often hesitant to “waste time” on what might be perceived as idle chit-chat.
But many networking experts believe in the power of small talk. Some see it as a necessary starting point to open doors to business opportunities that would otherwise remain closed.
The Glass Hammer asked a panel of expert networkers for their insights on why professional women need to engage in small talk, how to make it effective, why some people hate it, and how they can hate it less.
If you hate small talk, it might be because you don’t understand what it is and why we do it. That’s the opinion of Dr. Robin Bernstein, associate professor at Harvard University, and Maya Townsend, founder of Partnering Resources in Cambridge, who are both self-described “closet introverts” who have learned to get over it and work a room. The pair leads sessions on networking skills.
“Many people hate small talk,” says Townsend. “It’s often perceived as superficial and slightly sleazy. But if you pay attention, you’ll probably notice that you use small talk even with people you know very well. You’ll ask your spouse, ‘How was your day?’ or ask your kids, ‘How did school go?’”
“Small talk is an opener,” adds Bernstein. “It invites people to engage with you and gives them a huge number of nonverbal and tonal signals about us. It cues people in to the rhythms of our conversation and our general mood. Small talk helps answer questions like, ‘Is this person friendly?’ and ‘Is this person open to a conversation?’”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Ingeborg Hrabowy agrees that many successful executives have more driven styles and are less inclined to small talk. “Think about the DISC assessment instrument,” she explains. “They are very task-oriented and goal-oriented. Often these individuals see no purpose in this type of idle of chit-chat, but it’s actually the glue that holds people together and it’s a relationship starter.”
Networking Tips for Shy People
There’s no reason that introverts or others who would prefer to skip small talk have to miss out on its benefits. Follow these tips to improve your technique and results:
Don’t hang around the buffet table. When in a situation that requires making small talk, national corporate etiquette expert Diane Gottsman recommends remembering that you are not there to eat. “Have a quick snack before you arrive so you won’t be tempted to overindulge,” says Gottsman. “Hold your drink or plate in your left hand, but not both. Be prepared with your right hand to offer a friendly and firm greeting. Engaging with others allows you to appear self-confident and genuine.”
Use nametags. While it may feel silly to wear a nametag, doing so allows the other person to easily glance at your name for a quick refresher. “When you want to engage others in conversation it is always a plus that they know and remember who you are,” says Gottsman. “Wear your nametag and use their name in conversation.”
Double up. Diane Windingland, author of Small Talk, Big Results: Chit Chat Your Way to Success and Perfect Phrases for Icebreakers, suggests that a friend can serve as your personal PR agent at meetings or networking events. “By bringing a friend you don’t have to feel so alone,” says Windingland. “You can network as a duo and discreetly sing each other’s praises. You can split up and meet people individually and then come back together and introduce each other to new acquaintances.”
Have a few starter questions ready to go. Townsend advises coming to conversations prepared with some simple questions that invite people to engage with you. Good examples:
- How are you doing?
- What’s your connection to this organization?
- What did you think of [event you both participated in moments earlier]?
Break the ice. Windingland recommends warming up your questions with a three-step approach for initiating conversations:
- Observe something that you have in common with the other person.
- Make a transition comment that relates your observation to the question below by revealing something about yourself.
- Ask a question (preferably one that can’t be answered with a yes or no).
Get more engagement through self-disclosure. Research from Harvard University [PDF] has confirmed what all great conversationalists know: people like to talk about themselves. Windingland suggests four steps to get this started:
- Provide a non-threatening environment, which might mean getting away from the office and removing time pressure.
- Commit to listening more than talking.
- Disclose something about yourself to get the other person to open up to you.
- Encourage conversation by asking open-ended questions and keeping word choices simple.
Most of all, don’t try too hard. “Often people think that they have to show their brilliance when they meet new people,” says Bernstein. “Actually, it’s just the opposite. Be too erudite and you’ll turn people off because it will make it hard for them to engage. Instead, stick with the easy topics. You can to get to depth later on.”