Debra Fine, engineer turned conversationalist guru, says small talk is the foundation of a business relationship. She teaches execs The Fine Art of Small Talk, also the title of her book (Small Talk Publishers, 2002). Fast Company engaged her in some idle chatter.
Fast Company: So is small talk a big deal?
Fine: Small talk isn't stupid. It's the appetizer for all relationships.
FC: Engineers aren't known for great conversation. How did you get to be so good?
Fine: By observing people, I learned little things about how to be better with people. I started reading books about it. You don't have to learn to love small talk. I don't love it still.
FC: What do you say first?
Fine: A good conversationalist has to assume the burden of other people's comfort. If I forget your name, whose problem is that? It's uncomfortable for me, but your comfort comes first, so I say, "You know, I forgot your name, and I'm embarrassed."
FC: What are some good icebreakers?
Fine: My favorite, if I've met you before, is: "Bring me up to date on your life."
FC: This really works in business?
Fine: Lockheed Martin embraced "management by walking around" — but the executives didn't know what to say. Well, you say simple things such as, "What's going on with the project?" Show an interest. Be sincere.
FC: How do you keep your skills fresh?
Fine: I make myself talk to three new people every week. It's like my diet.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.