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The Fine Art of Small Talk
How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills -- and Leave a Positive Impression!
By Debra Fine
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Format:ebook (Revised) $14.99 $19.99 CAD
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In this bestselling guide to social success, communication expert Debra Fine reveals the techniques and strategies anyone can use to make small talk in any situation.Nationally recognized communication expert Debra Fine reveals the techniques and strategies anyone can use to make small talk–in any situation. Do you spend an abnormal amount of time hiding out in the bathroom or hanging out at the buffet table at social gatherings? Does the thought of striking up a conversation with a stranger make your stomach do flip-flops? Do you sit nervously through job interviews waiting for the other person to speak? Are you a "Nervous Ned or Nellie" when it comes to networking? Then it's time you mastered The Fine Art of Small Talk.
With practical advice and conversation "cheat sheets," The Fine Art of Small Talk will help you learn to feel more comfortable in any type of social situation, from lunch with the boss to an association event to a cocktail party where you don't know a soul.
When I first got into the business of helping people cultivate conversation skills, I ran into a lot of skepticism. Invariably, executives would scoff at the idea of a housewife’s trivial initiative to overcome boredom. Then I would get clandestine calls for assistance from folks with prestigious titles. People would construct elaborate covert operations to seek advice without actually asking for it, because they were embarrassed. I can appreciate that. In a previous life as a nerdy engineer, I was burdened with poor social skills and embarrassed by my own conversational ineptitude. Before I gave myself a remedial education in the Fine Art of Small Talk, I had been a poor communicator and a timid person for as long as I could recall.
As a girl I had been an overweight, reticent kid who sat invisible in the back of the class, often excluded because of my size. One of my most vivid memories of childhood is that of a birthday party for my third-grade classmate Rita. Every girl in my class was invited except for one other very overweight girl and me. That experience was so hurtful that I withdrew into a world of books. I had no idea how to make a friend or have a friend. Consequently, I never learned how to talk to my peers.
Naturally, when I got older, I selected a career without a high demand for conversation. I became an engineer—a perfect choice, since engineering tends to be highly technical and requires little chatting. I routinely made technical presentations or answered complex engineering questions without any trouble. All that was required was competence in my field. However, when I was sent to conferences or industry meetings, I was expected to mingle with colleagues. Network. Meet clients. I was filled with panic. I only knew one way to start a conversation. Without fail, I would ask every person I met, What do you do? After we exchanged career notes, the conversation invariably sputtered to an agonizing halt. I didn’t know how to keep it going. I skipped every social function I could. The ones I couldn’t, I’d arrive late, leave early, and, in between, pray that some other person with better skills and a kind heart would rescue me by initiating a conversation.
I struggled with the art of conversation throughout my tenure as an engineer. Then I took a break from my career to have my two children. In that interlude, I decided that I was weary of being overweight and self-conscious. I lost sixty-five pounds. My self-image improved. I wanted to have friends and to have fun. To do so, I knew that I would have to acquire better social skills. I took note of those who were successful at cultivating friendships and mingling in a crowd. I watched their techniques and timidly began to imitate them.
My motivation went into overdrive after my husband and I divorced. I realized that I’d have to start socializing if I wanted to meet anyone. Here I was approaching forty years of age, having been out of my field for a number of years, and needing to meet people. It was a daunting prospect, to say the least. But I realized that acquiring conversation skills wasn’t rocket science. I convinced myself it couldn’t be that tough or I wouldn’t see so many people doing it so well. I made it my goal to figure out how to keep a conversation going for longer than five minutes.
One of my first experiments with small talk was a life-changing success. I went to happy hour at a local nightspot with a girlfriend. A man across the room began making eye contact with me. All night we kept exchanging glances, never speaking. My girlfriend prodded me. “Debra,” she said, “just go over there and say something to him.”
I replied, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t have anything to say. Besides, if he wanted to meet me, he’d have come over by now.”
But my girlfriend would not relent. She was so adamant that her challenge finally inspired me to go over and introduce myself to him. As I walked across the room, my heart pounded so loudly, I could hardly hear myself say hello to the man I now know as Rex. He pulled out a chair and said he was delighted to meet me. From that inauspicious beginning we began to date each other. A friendship developed, and I learned a lot about Rex. The most important thing I came to learn, though, was why Rex hadn’t approached me first at the happy hour. I was certain that his reluctance was an unspoken commentary on some fault of mine. It had to be that I was too tall, that I still weighed too much, or that I just wasn’t his type. I could not have been more wrong. It wasn’t about me at all. It was about him. He was too shy to approach me.
I couldn’t believe it. It really turned my thinking around. For the first time I understood that there were lots of talented, educated, wonderful people in the world who are incredibly shy. I realized that if my girlfriend hadn’t insisted, and if I hadn’t found my courage, I never would have met a man who became an integral part of my life. No, I didn’t marry him, but he did become one of my closest friends.
That experience made me a convert to small talk. I finally understood what a great tool it could be for building rapport with people. I devoted myself to learning about it, practicing it, and helping others become good at it. I started my business, The Fine Art of Small Talk, and have been small talking my way around the country ever since. I have met countless fascinating people and made many friends. My life is now richly populated with a diversity of individuals who bring added meaning and depth to each of my days.
My goal in writing this book is to offer what I’ve learned so that you, too, can reap the rewards that come from having a repertoire of conversation skills. The techniques, tips, and skills in this book are for everyone—not just nerds. I know salespeople who are wonderful at making formal presentations but who enter a networking event in a cold sweat. I’ve met teachers who can chat with students and colleagues but have no idea what to say to parents at school functions. Harried, yet happy, stay-at-home moms are a bundle of entertainment at a play group but walk away from a Junior League meeting or church event feeling isolated and disconnected. I know one physician who closed his practice and joined an HMO because, despite his gift as a healer, he lacked the conversation skills and confidence to garner new referrals. The list goes on. Competent people from all walks of life need assistance to develop conversation skills.
This book will provide you those small talk skills. Enhancing your conversational skills will no doubt improve your quality of life. I think you’ll be surprised at the potency of small talk. It has an amazing ripple effect. Becoming a good conversationalist will bring new people into your network of friends and colleagues. You will find joy in the social events you used to dread, and you will create pathways and channels for new opportunities to present themselves. My dear friend Rex met an early death a couple of years ago in a car accident in Mexico. It is a reminder to me that the risk of engaging someone new in conversation pales in comparison to the risk of driving a car. Rex lived a lot in his forty-plus years. I am grateful that I ventured across the room to become a part of that short life.
Take a moment. Spend some time filling out the following “Winning at Small Talk” worksheet. If you answer yes to most, you are certainly on the right track. If you find yourself responding no to more than a few, it’s time to get to work.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT SMALL TALK?
You pull into the parking lot, turn off the engine, and sit for a minute dreading the next two hours. An important client has invited you to an open house in celebration of their new downtown office. You hate these things. You don’t know what to say, you don’t know anyone except the client, and you always feel like you’re trying not to look lost; so you eat and drink more than you should, just to stay occupied. You must attend—that’s a given—but you sink deeper into the front seat and agonize over how long you have to stay. Will dropping by for thirty minutes do the trick, or will you insult one of your best clients if you don’t stay for the whole event? You search for excuses to get yourself out of there early. You could have someone page you at a specified time with a supposed emergency; perhaps one of the kids has a big game; or maybe you’ll just allow your anxiety to carry you right into an illness.
Casual conversation happens at least a dozen times a day—on the way into the office, picking up your daughter from soccer practice, riding the elevator with a colleague, fielding a phone call from your mother-in-law, attending an industry meeting, taking a client to lunch, going to a job interview—the list is endless! Yet for some of us, these demands for small talk don’t ever make small talk any easier. If anything, such encounters increase anxiety and cause some people to dread social events, business lunches, and chance encounters with neighbors. Unfortunately, in our preoccupation with our own discomfort, our neighbors, acquaintances, and associates label us distant, cold, and reserved.
Remember Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town? On the morning of his son’s wedding, Frank Gibbs, the neighborly physician, confesses to his wife that his chief concern in the early days of their own marriage was how to make small talk with his bride. “I was afraid,” he tells her, “we wouldn’t have material for conversation more’n’d last us a few weeks.” It seems acquiring small talk skills is not exclusively a modern-day quest.
If your conversations evaporate almost as soon as they’ve begun, or if you’re a reluctant participant at social and business get-togethers, you’ve come to the right place. This book will help you acquire the conversation skills you need to feel confident and poised in any situation. If you practice the simple techniques revealed here, you’ll put your conversational demons behind you. You will learn how to:
• Engage any individual in a meaningful dialogue
• Resuscitate a dying conversation
• Transition into new topics
• Feel more at ease at networking events, parties, and receptions
• Develop business friendships
• Step out of a conversation with grace
GETTING TO THE BIG STUFF
Small talk has a bad rap as the lowly stepchild of real conversation, yet it serves an extremely important function. Without it, you rarely get to the real conversation. Small talk is the icebreaker that clears the way for more intimate conversation, laying the foundation for a stronger relationship. People who excel at small talk are experts at making others feel included, valued, and comfortable. And that goes a long way toward furthering a business relationship, closing a deal, opening the door for romance, or making a friend.
The good news about conversation skills is that anyone can learn them. Don’t be fooled into thinking that all those other people you see who are smiling and happily mingling come by it naturally. Sure, some are natural-born talkers, but most have had to work at it. They’ve practiced, attended seminars, hired personal coaches, and read books. You don’t think so? Trust me, I know. I used to be a geeky, introverted engineer—no one has worse skills than I once did. I became a pro by learning the skills and then practicing them. It’s that simple.
The first step is to let go of the idea that we are all somehow supposed to know how to converse with strangers and acquaintances. It’s simply not true. We are not taught how to do it, nor is there some biological mechanism that instinctively takes over when we find ourselves in a conversational quandary.
Mark McCormack, an attorney from Cleveland who founded one of the first sports management firms in the United States, once said, “All things being equal, people will buy from a friend. All things being not quite so equal, people will still buy from a friend.” The bottom line: It’s to your benefit to cultivate friendships, not just collect business cards.
The art of conversation is poised to enjoy a revival. Twenty years ago John Naisbitt, in his book Megatrends, spoke to a future world focused on high tech yet longing for high touch. This high-tech world would place us farther away from our nuclear families, communicating with our colleagues and friends via faxes, e-mails, and cell phones rather than face-to-face. Driving in and out of our homes via the garage-door opener without any interaction with our neighbors. Our new way of living, working, and commuting would create a void of connection with others.
Today we find ourselves exactly as Naisbitt forecasted—isolated in our niche, cubicle, or lifestyle. Membership in civic, religious, and business associations and organizations has declined because we have lost the ability to connect. Yet because of the events of September 11, 2001, not only do we Americans share a common experience of great magnitude, but now more than ever we long to communicate with each other about terrorism, war, and sometimes anything but terrorism and war. When a pilot has to instruct his passengers departing Denver International Airport on the weekend following September 11 to introduce themselves and learn about each other, then we have truly lost the art of conversation. It has become our custom to be so respectful of each other’s space—or instead, so fearful of rejection—that we no longer know how to begin a conversation with strangers, let alone keep one going. Yet because of the longing for high touch, combined with the need for reaching out because of our shared national tragedy, the art of conversation will bloom.
We become better conversationalists when we employ two primary objectives. Number one: Take the risk. It is up to us to take the risk of starting a conversation with a stranger. We cannot hope that others will approach us; instead, even if we are shy, it is up to us to make the first move. We all fear rejection at some level. Just remind yourself that there are more dire consequences in life than a rejection by someone at a networking event, singles function, back-to-school night, or association meeting. Number two: Assume the burden. It is up to each and every one of us to assume the burden of conversation. It is our responsibility to come up with topics to discuss; it is up to us to remember people’s names and to introduce them to others; it is up to us to relieve the awkward moments or fill the pregnant pause. Most of us hope others will assume these tasks. It is up to us to assume the burden of other people’s comfort. If others are comfortable in our presence, then they will feel good about doing business or socializing with us.
TALK IS CHEAP . . . BUT VERY VALUABLE
Small talk is essential to creating and enriching business relationships. Always begin and end your business conversation with small talk to humanize the relationship. Investors choose financial planners as much for their ability to make them feel secure and comfortable as they do for their financial savvy. How important is your physician’s bedside manner to you? Hairstylists are the consummate conversationalists. They understand that no woman will spend the better part of an hour or more sitting in a chair at the mercy of someone with a sharp instrument unless she feels comfortable!
In an indirect but very important way, small talk relates to how businesses and individuals spend money. In general, people and organizations spend money for two reasons:
• To solve a problem or fill a need. Think about it. You dash into a fast-food restaurant for lunch so you can spare yourself from packing leftovers. You hire a babysitter so you can escape for an evening out. You pay a lawn-care company to cut your grass so you can enjoy more free time and fewer allergy symptoms.
• To gain good, positive feelings. My neighbor Susan continues banking with the same institution even though another bank in our neighborhood offers a better free-checking deal—because she likes the people. My friend Vince moved to the opposite side of town and still drives back to the old neighborhood to take his dog to the vet. Although he and the vet do not socialize together, he can’t imagine going anywhere else. He likes that particular vet.
A good conversationalist frequently evokes the positive feelings that people long to have, and the reality is that buyers’ choices about where to spend their money are influenced by the presence or absence of rapport. Small talk is a big deal because it is integral to establishing rapport. Parents and teachers visit before a conference to create a bond. Mortgage brokers chat with referral sources like title companies and Realtors to strengthen the relationship and garner business. Even a minimal amount of pleasant small talk will make prospective customers remember you better than they remember your competitor.
- On Sale
- Feb 7, 2023
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Hachette Go