Have you ever been in a meeting where the senior people are in a pointless conversation with each other? It has nothing to do with business or anything important at all.
Acme Corp CEO: “Did you see the ballgame last night?”
Acme Corp Board Chair: “What a game! It looks like we’re going to the playoffs. Do you think we’ll win the championship?”
Acme Corp Junior Analyst thoughts while sitting quietly: Can we just start the meeting already…
But after the senior executives are done with the banter, they are noticeably more comfortable with each other and more open to talking about sensitive business topics than they were before that conversation.
Small talk is defined as when people talk about nothing important or relevant to the situation. But small talk is actually an important part of building trust and a deeper social connection. Learning to make small talk and then transitioning to a more meaningful conversation is very important for your career too.
Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, notes that people enjoy connecting with others and consistently connecting with people is a key factor in happiness.
Naturally, your coworkers and clients want to be happy when they are around you. Talking to them, whether through small talk or a deeper conversation, is a great way for them to enjoy your company.
Still, many analytical people see small talk as pointless and a time waster because you should talk about something more meaningful. But research shows small talk is actually a key component for building business relationships.
Small talk helps build the initial levels of communication and begins the formation of a social bond within the group. People don’t just go from being strangers to acquaintances. First they talk about some common topics that are going on in the world like sports or a new movie out in theaters. After a few minutes, they then start to talk about more personal topics like their career path and family. But they don’t get to that level of trust without small talk first.
Most people don’t like to jump directly to talking about themselves or listening to a stranger talk which is why small talk is important. It bridges the gap.
My friend Camille Virginia is the Founder of Master Offline Dating and one of the best I know at small talk. After a decade of experience in health care consulting, she began to learn the secrets of building genuine connections and now helps single women get the skills and confidence to connect with men in the real world. She has been featured in international media publications such as Bustle, Elite Daily, GrowthLab, and YourTango.
Through her work experience as a consultant and running a business, she also knows a thing or two about teaching others how to transition from small talk to a deeper conversation.
One of Camille’s suggestions is to talk about a topic that you are genuinely curious about:
“Pick up on small clues about their clothes, accent, or something they said that you want to know more about. Things that actually interest you, or are natural follow-up questions that give an opportunity to learn more.”
As you build a rapport with this person, you can go into deeper conversations. Camille says, “Every person in the world has a wealth of interesting stories, facts and emotions that are changing constantly. If you think about it, we’re all pretty fascinating (even when we don’t really feel like it).”
Camille gives an example for starting with small talk and moving to a deeper topic: “Complimenting a woman on her necklace, might lead to discovering your shared love of vintage jewelry. The segue from the surface level topic (the necklace) into something more meaningful and actually helpful (the best vintage jewelry places in the city) is practically seamless.”
[For anyone who is skeptical for how this applies to business, I’ve seen a older male CEO compliment a senior executive woman from another organization about her unique colorful necklace when they met for the first time before a business meeting. That led to a conversation about how his wife loves the same type of jewelry and the executive gave the CEO a few gift recommendations for his wife. They built up trust with each other in that short 3 minute conversation. This technique can work for anyone if you are talking about things that you are genuinely curious about.]
Another suggestion for moving from small talk to a deeper conversation is to ask a follow up question on a more personal level. Camille has an example: “Maybe you’re at a networking event and someone mentions being brand new to the city. Ask if they’re enjoying their new home, and where they moved from.”
You may also want to add a story from when you were new to a city. That will help the other person learn a little bit about you too.
While you might not like small talk, it’s a necessary part of building business relationships and trust. If you want to advance in your career, you will need people skills. Learning to make small talk and transition into a deeper conversation is a key skill for climbing up the ladder.
As Camille notes, “It feels amazing to know that someone else is generally interested in you and your life. As the adage goes ‘At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.’”