Fast Company

Success and The Fine Art of Small Talk

Dynamic communication skills are one of the keys to success that I discuss in Straight Talk for Success.  If you want to become a dynamic communicator, you need to master three skills: 1) Conversation; 2) Writing; and 3) Presenting.

I’ve been looking over the transcripts of my old internet radio show.  I had some pretty interesting guests who said some pretty interesting things.  Debra Fine, author of the best seller The Fine Art of Small Talk was one of my guests.  We discussed how to become a good conversationalist. 

Here is part of what Debra had to say…

Bud: What are some icebreakers or conversation starters that shy people – or anyone—can use to get a conversation going?

Debra:  Don’t be afraid to dig deeper.  When you say to them “how’s work” they’re going to say “pretty good” or “good” or “great” or whatever.  Dig in deeper, let them know you’re sincere with one more question, “So, what’s been going on with work, Bud, since the last time we talked”, or if you say to somebody “how were your holidays” and they say “great”, “well, what did you do over the holidays that you enjoyed the most?”  Let them know you are sincere, when you are sincere, when you have the time. 

We say to our friends, “how are you Bud?”, “great”, you got to follow up with something like “Bud, bring me up to date – what’s been going on in your life since the last time I saw you?”  Now Bud knows I really want to know how he is, otherwise “how are you” means “hello”.  That’s all it means.  My own husband will walk into the house and say “how was your day” and I’ll say “pretty good” because my guess is my husband doesn’t really want to know how my day is and this is my second husband, Bud, okay?  And he doesn’t want to know.  But if he digs in deeper, I’ll know that he was interested. 

Okay, so that’s just one tip.  We don’t want to become FBI agents, that’s why that one following question is important, but no more after that.  You don’t want to do one of these numbers, “Bud, what do you do?”  So, what’s your answer to that, Bud? 

Bud:  Well, I’m a consultant, speaker, and right now, an internet radio show host.

Debra:  And, Bud, it sounds like you have an accent from back east, so what part of the country are you from?

Bud:  Pittsburgh.

Debra: Look at what just happened.  I said “what do you do, Bud” and you said consultant, etc. and I said it sounds like you have an accent, like you’re from back east or something and you responded to that.  I became an FBI agent.  That was the point of that little shtick.  If you’re going to start with “what do you do,” stay on topic.

Bud:  You make a great point here.  People get uncomfortable if you jump around in conversations because it gets them off balance, they don’t know what’s coming next.  So if you begin a conversation by asking somebody about their job or career, ask a follow up question about their job or career.  I think this is tremendous advice -- making sure that you follow up with a question that’s on target, not something that goes off in another direction.

Debra:  And I’m saying to you to make it an open-ended question.  “Tell me about it, describe that for me, how was that like for you, how did you come up with that idea?”  Everybody’s got to use an open-ended question if at all possible so you can open up the conversation.  Do we have a couple more minutes for another tip?

Bud:  Yes we do.

Debra:  Okay, let’s talk about the most common response to the question, “what’s been going on in your life?” Do you know what most of us say to “what’s been going on?” 

Bud:  Not much.

Debra:  Exactly.  That’s exactly right.  We say “not much” or “nothing.”  And I bet you would have said “not much” if I asked you that question because that’s what first came out of your mouth just now when I asked that, and yet you told me I believe during a break that you’re going to New York tomorrow. 

I think there’s a lot going on and “not much” is just a bunch of bologna, right?  And that’s how it is for all of us.  We’ve all said “not much” and what we really mean is “there’s so much going on, I can’t possibly think of what it is so I’ll just say not much”.  That’s what we mean.  There’s just too much going on to think of what to say. 

Now, if you’re just walking down the hall and don’t have time to stop and chat, a one-word answer like that is fine and dandy.  But, if you’d like to connect at an annual conference when someone says to you “what’s been going on?”  Please have an answer.  It doesn’t have to be an elevator speech, just an answer, “well, we just introduced flex time at our company and that’s been a huge burden, but I feel like we’ve seen the worst of it, and we’re going to get through it.”

Now I have something to talk about with you, flex time.  Like, how did you set it up, how does that impact you?  Do you get three days off a week?  I mean, give me something, it doesn’t have to be mooshy, it doesn’t have to be about your divorce.  Just give me something. 

If you said to me “Debra, how have you been?” I might say “well, I became an empty-nester this year and it’s really been a whole new experience, and not a sad one, a good one and I’ve really enjoyed it.”  Now, did I brag about my kids, no.  Did I go on and on about how perfect and gorgeous and wonderful they are?  Absolutely not.  I just let you know something about myself that I’m willing to talk about.  If you’re not interested, you’ll go “oh, Debra, good for you, let’s talk about that contract…what do you think…?”  You don’t want to chit-chat, that’s fine.  Let’s get down to the business at hand.

Bud:  I think that’s really great and that you’re absolutely right.  The point you’re making here is that if you do go to an event and you’re somebody who is not naturally able to roll things off the tip of your tongue, be prepared, because somebody’s probably going to say to you, “what’s going on, what’s happening?”

Debra: Yes, and you get something else when you do this Bud.  You become a three-dimensional person.  If you sell insurance, then you’re a sales person who sells insurance.  But if I ask you “how was our weekend?” and you say “it was pretty good, we went to the theater and saw Dr. Doolittle and it wasn’t as bad as all the reviews said,” you just became more than an insurance salesman, you became a human being in my mind.  By saying that you went to a musical you became three dimensional.  You are not just a sales person, you are now a human being.  Human beings go to shows called Dr. Doolittle. 

Does that make sense?  “How was your weekend?”  “I worked in the garden, I played on my volleyball league, I finished a good book, I’m finishing my basement.”  That’s all you have to say.  You don’t go on and on about it.  Just give me a sentence.

Bud:  A small bit of self-disclosure can be helpful and make it easy.  Let me try to summarize… (A) When you enter a networking situation, put yourself out, introduce yourself to somebody. (B) When somebody introduces themselves to you, be three-dimensional.  Do a little bit of self-disclosure.  Be willing to say something about yourself.

Debra:  Right.

Bud:  One last thing, what do you do when all of a sudden there’s dead silence in a conversation?

Debra:  Well, you better be prepared.  The worst time to think about something to talk about, Bud, is when there’s nothing to talk about.  So my rule for myself, and I wrote a book about it, is if I’m going to take you out to lunch and you’re a customer or client, I’ve got two to three things in the back of my head ready to go just in case we have nothing to talk about.  Maybe it’s current events.  Maybe it’s something I already know about you.  You have a wife, her name is Cathy, she used to be a flight attendant.  Do you understand?  Have some questions in the back of your head, to be able to keep conversations moving when there’s that huge awkward silence.  You’ve got to be prepared.  It’s not a big deal to be prepared.  It takes one whole minute.  It’s not like a Yoga class. 

That’s some great common sense on becoming a great conversationalist from Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk.

The common sense point here is clear.  Successful people are dynamic communicators.  Dynamic communicators are great conversationalists.  Great conversationalists know how to begin conversations and keep them going.  Questions are a great way to open conversations.   Use open ended, not yes or no, questions.  Follow up with a comment or a question that follows in the same vein.  When someone asks you a question, become three dimensional by being willing to disclose something about yourself as a person.  If you know who you are going to be seeing, think back to the last time you saw that person.  Think about what you discussed.  Keep these things in the back of your mind.  They can help you prevent awkward silences in your conversation.

That’s what Debra Fine and I think about conversation skills.  What do you think?  Please leave a comment sharing your thoughts with us.  As always, thanks for reading.

Bud

 

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