Small talk, big business

Written by Kyle Marnoch

For many entrepreneurs, making small talk ranks alongside a tax audit or public speaking on their list of favorite pastimes. No wonder: keeping a conversation going doesn’t come naturally to many of us, and the potential for social gaffes is high. But mastering the art of chit-chat does more than allow you to avoid awkward silences.

Good conversation skills help you develop and nurture relationships necessary for business success, says Catherine Bell, president of Prime Impressions, an image-consulting firm in Kingston, Ont. “If you engage someone in meaningful small talk, they will think highly of you,” says Bell. “It creates a platform on which you can continue to develop your relationship.” The good news is with a little practice and preparation, you can learn to navigate social and business functions with ease.

Getting-to-know-you talk is an integral part of doing business for Shawn Rivers, president and CEO of Promographix Inc., a promotional products distributor in Ottawa. Rivers says chatting at social events is the first step to connecting and building a rapport with people. And most people want to do business with individuals whom they like and respect. “The events that we attend are the biggest opportunity we have in picking up new clients,” says Rivers. So it’s important to shine.

Still, striking up a conversation with a stranger can be nerve-wracking. Reduce pre-event jitters by being prepared, says Adeodata Czink, president of Business of Manners, a Toronto-based company that teaches business etiquette. Before an event, think about how you’ll introduce yourself and then identify three topics you can converse on easily. Scan newspapers and magazines for ideas on current events and people. At the event, take the initiative. Be the first to establish eye contact, say hello and introduce yourself with your name and a handshake. That way, says Czink, “They have to respond with a handshake back.”

“If you’re on your own, go find someone else who is on their own,” suggests Marty Avery, VP of public relations for the Toronto chapter of Toastmasters International, which teaches public-speaking skills. Most people are looking to start a discussion, she says, but often don’t want to make the first move.

Once you’ve found your target, remember what small talk is meant to accomplish. Bell says chit-chat should help a person to get to know you, to like you and to learn what your business is. Initiate conversation by asking someone why they’re at the event or their connection to the host, then listen carefully for information that will keep the ball rolling. Show interest and ask questions. “If you want a happy person, ask them about their passion,” says Bell. “For some people it’s their grandchildren; for some it’s scuba diving. People like to talk about themselves and, if you let them, they’ll go away thinking you’re fantastic.”

Keep in mind that effective small talk takes place on a two-way street. “Some people don’t realize the other person is important in the mixture,” says Bell. “You need to share the airspace.”

Move on if someone isn’t interested in talking. “I’m conscious of winding it down professionally but moving on,” says Rivers. “If they don’t want to talk, chances are they’re a dead end.”

Still, avoid melting away. “Tell them you’ve enjoyed the conversation and say, ‘There’s probably other people here you want to talk to’,” says Bell. “Shake the person’s hand and take your leave.”

Conversation killers

Some things are better left unsaid in conversations with new acquaintances, says Adeodata Czink, president of Toronto-based Business of Manners. “Stay away from religion and politics,” she says. “Not because it’s bad subject matter, but people are so viciously adamant about their own views and they get so defensive.” Other taboo topics: personal comments (“Is that your natural hair color?”), money (“How much do you make?”) and sex. KM

© 2003 Kyle Marnoch

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com