The Gift of Gab

The ability to converse comfortably anywhere, anytime is essential for business and social success. Small talk is an important skill when networking for jobs or business development, breaking the ice in interviews, and connecting with others before meetings. It puts people at ease while creating a smooth transition from initial greeting to business discussion. When conversation partners are comfortable, they’re more receptive to ideas and willing to share information. Ironically, the current environment of constant electronic communication has endangered our gift of gab.

Practice makes perfect. Chat with people you meet as you go about your daily routine, join a trade organization or a club involving one of your hobbies or interests, or go out and mingle in social situations. Toastmasters International or a professional networking group offer opportunities to perfect your technique.

To make small talk, you must have something to say. Develop a list of subjects you’re comfortable talking about and interest a wide variety of people. Keep up with current events and topics useful to your cause, interest, or business. Good general topics include sports, travel, arts and entertainment, food, and current events. If you’re most comfortable leading off with a comment on traffic or weather to break the ice, make sure you have a back-up subject in mind, once you exhaust those limited themes. Before attending a meeting or event, research issues relevant to the people involved.

Don’t wait for others to initiate conversation; be proactive. It’s usually easier to approach someone standing alone than breaking into an ongoing conversation. Make a comment or ask an open-ended question about the event, venue, or organization, and introduce yourself. If you’ve already met, introduce yourself again, following up with a reminder such as, “We met previously at _________.” When others join your group, welcome them and initiate introductions. If you forgot someone’s name and they don’t volunteer it, admit your memory lapse and embarrassment, and ask them to remind you. (Wear a nametag, if available, with your name in large letters.)

Easy conversation starters include: How long have you been a member of this group? What brings you here today? An almost fail-safe opening gambit is to compliment or ask about the other person. People most admired for their conversational abilities encourage others to talk about themselves and make them feel important and interesting. Avoid an inquisition by sharing a bit about yourself, as well. Look for similarities in background or experiences, or shared interests.

Listening is as important as talking. Make eye contact, smile and nod periodically, and show sincere interest. Refrain from glancing over your conversational partner’s shoulder as if for someone more important or exciting. Don’t monopolize the conversation. Conversely, if someone else rambles on, wait for a breath or pause, then break in with a comment about the topic, and immediately lead the conversation in another direction.

Avoid gossip, off-color jokes, and controversial matters. In any business situation, sex talk is taboo. Avoid double entendres; watch your verbal and body language. If the conversation becomes too personal, flirty, or uncomfortable, gracefully steer it back to a professional level.

Except in situations where there’s no potential for offending anyone, don’t discuss religion or politics. Almost no one outside your intimate circle is interested in your medical problems or personal misfortunes. Keep cute anecdotes about your family and pets to a minimum; elaborate only with those demonstrably interested, not just being polite. With people you don’t know well, and even those you do, refrain from criticizing anyone. The target of your comments could be a friend or relative! If the conversation wanders into contentious territory, state that you can see strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the issue, and it won’t be resolved today. Ask politely, “Can we agree to disagree?” Then follow up with a question on a safe topic.

Arriving early to an event allows you to meet attendees as they enter, before they connect with others. People tend to congregate near food, and comments about the refreshments also can provide an opening line. If you want to meet someone engaged in a group, stand quietly until there’s a lull in the conversation. Then make a positive comment or ask a question, and introduce yourself. If people are engrossed in their conversation, move on and come back later.

The purpose of attending a business or networking event is to connect with many people. Therefore, don’t stick with one conversation the whole time, even if it’s fascinating. The idea is to engage, make a good impression, and leave them wanting more. Wait for a pause in the conversation, summarize, and say how great it was to meet and talk with them. Offer to exchange business cards and, if you wish, suggest you follow up to continue the discussion another time. Shake hands and move on—but not to an adjacent group, because that can look like you just were bored with the first conversation.

Similarly, don’t overstay your welcome. Pay attention to non-verbal cues sent by your conversational partners. If they start to appear restless, wrap up your comments and close, as above. Conversely, if someone is clinging to you despite your efforts to disengage, mention that you need to “use the facilities,” get something to eat or drink, or check in with your colleague who also is attending the function. Excuse yourself and walk purposely to your stated destination. Note: It’s easier to mingle if you stand; it can be awkward to extricate yourself from a conversation with someone sitting near you.

Although you might have an ulterior motive for engaging in small talk, it shouldn’t be foremost in your interaction. Small talk is just the way to begin and build a relationship. People are more likely to do business with those they know, like, and trust. The gift of gab allows you to differentiate yourself, learn something about the other person or business, and establish rapport. It helps turn strangers into acquaintances, and acquaintances into business associates or clients.

Valerie Fontaine is a partner in SeltzerFontaineLLC, a legal search firm based in Los Angeles. The second edition of her book, “The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers,” published by NALP., is in its second edition. She can be reached at [email protected] or 310-842-6985.

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