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A quick guide to the do's and don'ts of casual conversation.
The ability to make "small talk" is a crucial element in any social setting, especially in business. In some professions, it's essential.
Small talk can build goodwill, inspire confidence, even create sales. Here's a quick guide to the do's and don'ts of small talk. Remember these brief suggestions next time you find yourself in the middle of a casual conversation:
- Use yourself as a conversation starter. When a business acquaintance asks, "How are you?" respond definitely. "I feel great!" Or: "Terrific...this is the best day I've had all week." Your animated response is almost certain to inspire conversation.
- Use distinctive phrases to introduce yourself. A particular nickname, a slogan that you enjoy, even an unusual spelling of a name, can all help make a quick and immediate impression on an acquaintance. Examples: "The name's 'Jones', but people call me 'bones'." Or: "People on my staff sometimes call me 'tiger'." Experienced sales reps know that distinctive nicknames or phrases can build long-term name recognition and sales. Get a favorite phrase out early in your conversations and others will remember you.
- Make and follow a mental list of conversation topics. What can you speak about in casual conversation? You name it: the computer revolution, the price of eggs, the weather, current events and hundreds of other topics of interest to just about anyone. From reading the newspaper, watching television, engaging in family conversation and simply from living, you know thousands of these topics, facts and figures. They all make for great small talk.
- Use atmosphere to spark conversation. Does the room contain an antique or unusual piece of furniture? An old photograph on the wall? Some noteworthy object or memento? Use these items to spark a conversation. Better yet, if you know that an object reflects the interests or background of your partner, aim to learn something about that person as a result of the conversation.
- Prepare stock phrases to describe yourself. When engaging in small talk, you'll often be asked to speak about yourself - your career, your experiences, your skills, even your childhood. While you won't get into much depth in these conversations, you will want to give enough information about yourself to establish your own credibility and identity. So prepare - and rehearse - a dozen or so key sentences, phrases or anecdotes that describe you in the most easygoing and engaging manner possible.
- Use affirmative statements. "I see," "I understand" or "Is that so?" are examples of statements that reflect your personal interest in the comments of another person. These affirming statements inspire further conversation and let other individuals know you're listening to them. Your body language - nods of the head or hand gestures, for example - help reinforce your verbal statements and the interest you're taking in your conversation partner.
- Match the verbal tone of the person you're speaking with. Individuals can be grouped by interpersonal style. You might run into a deliberative and analytical individual on Monday. On Tuesday, you might meet an expressive, even emotional sort. On Wednesday, you might encounter the classic "people person" who enjoys the life history of everyone he meets. Note the cadence, pitch and tone of the person you're speaking with - and try to match these verbal characteristics as much as possible. You'll enhance communication as a result.
- Relax. Even if you have an ulterior motive in your conversation, it's important that you maintain a relaxed posture. A non-threatening, open body style - characterized by a modest physical distance from the speaker, arms relaxed, head back - helps maintain an easygoing, relaxed atmosphere during casual conversation.
- Avoid controversial issues. Politics, sex, religion and hotly debated current events should all be avoided in casual conversation, especially in business relationships. They spell nothing but trouble - whether or not the individual you're speaking with agrees with your position. If you're discussing controversial issues, the only message you'll leave with a business acquaintance is that you're a very aggressive, opinionated sort - not the image you'll want to project just after meeting someone with whom you wish to cultivate a relationship.
- Learn to make the transition between small talk and substantive discussion. Usually, the individual you're speaking with will make the transition. Courtesy demands that you switch from small talk to business discussion when your conversation partner is ready. Be prepared to discuss the important issues at hand - a sale, a business need, whatever - when your conversation partner signals a willingness to do so. A move toward the desk or a transitional statement (like, "Speaking of business, let me share something with you..." or "Anyway, about the purpose of this meeting...") indicates that serious business conversation is about to begin.
Effective small talk skills can help you build bridges with a variety of individuals in private and professional life. Used carefully and wisely, small talk can help you communicate, build support for your ideas and ensure that others remember you long after the sum and substance of your conversation is forgotten.