Small Talk Doesn’t Have to Suck

Anne Scarlett
Posted on: 01/21/20
Written by: Anne Scarlett

peoplenetwAs architecture and engineering firm business developers, you’re often beating that “Everyone markets!” drum. Yet, you also recognize that in order for staff to deliver on these expectations, it’s only fair that you first provide them with tools to ensure their success. 

Yet interestingly, when assembling specific training content to help staff strengthen their communication and marketing skills, one essential goal is often overlooked: Be a good conversationalist.

Why is it overlooked? Perhaps the art of conversation is viewed as ‘a given’ or ‘too simplistic’ or ‘a lower priority.’ But believe me, ranging from interns all the way to the C-suite, your staff craves techniques to connect with people in all contexts – business or otherwise.

So while they certainly benefit from sales and networking training, they also strongly seek confidence in their ability to simply make an impression, grow relationships, build trust, and connect on a personal level.

Given the choice, most–but certainly not all–of us prefer to quickly move away from small talk and towards more meaningful topics that challenge our intellect or feed our soul. That said, it’s not a requirement for small talk to be shallow!

Why does good conversation (even small talk) really matter? Perhaps you’re thinking, “I need to focus our training on skills that will truly affect the bottom line: selling.” No question, sales training is invaluable!

But I assure you that even those professionals who are agile at identifying and creating need, probing for prospect issues, clearly explaining value propositions, and going for the ‘ask’ are not necessarily masters of conversation and (gasp!) small talk. I know this for a fact, because existing and past clients have admitted it and have repeatedly asked for help in becoming a better conversationalist.

What are the Dos and Don’ts? If you are truly committed to becoming a great conversationalist, then you must consider these Dos and Don’ts.

  • DO remember that being interesting is good; being interested is even better. Being a terrific listener, even if the topic is not of immediate interest to you, is absolutely essential. Tap into your ‘curious self,’ not unlike how you might have been as a child.

  • DO share! Equally important, you absolutely must share about yourself. Offer up little tidbits within your comments and questions that reveal something about you. See if they bite and show you that they are interested. When done right, sharing can demonstrate vulnerability and humility, which in turn can lead to connection and trust. 

  • DO encourage flow. You mustn’t bombard others with question-after unrelated-question. Instead, you must build upon whatever the other people have said, and make sure that any changes of topic are elegant rather than abrupt or awkward.

  • DO ‘be’ the host. Even if you are not officially the host, make it your business to ensure that everyone is having a good time, and that they feel included.

  • DO be a bit playful. Be willing to laugh at yourself, and take appropriate opportunities to reflect your lighthearted side of self: I see you have a smart phone...wanna swap favorite app recommendations? OR: So you had a tricky time tearing yourself away from the office, eh? If only we could have an extra hour every day! If we had one, I know that I’d do xyz. What would you do with an extra hour per day? OR: Lately, I’ve been learning a new fun fact every week relating to science. Today, I learned a super cool finding around blood types on NPR’s Science Friday. Care to learn more? 

  • DO create warmth. Good conversation is not just enlightening, exciting, and invigorating. When you focus on a positive exchange, it will create warmth between people. And warmth can lead to trust—in business and beyond. 

  • DON’T belittle, brag, exclude, or make others feel inadequate. If you ask an ‘elevated’ question or offer up personal information only to discover that the other person has limited experiences, a different education level, or a lack of knowledge on the specific topic, then subtly shift gears to something of which they are more versed. Monitor their non-verbal cues as an indicator on their level of comfort, openness and engagement.

  • DON’T talk on and on, completely self-absorbed. If possible, guide the conversation to be 1/3 you, 2/3 them. Remember, being interested outperforms interesting. 

  • DON’T ensue a debate. Remember that ‘conversationalist’ does not equate to ‘debater.’ Perhaps you personally consider healthy debating on heady topics to be a dynamic method towards building connections and elevating the quality of discourse. But others may not share your passion for true debate. Until you get a real sense of their interest level in debating challenging - and likely controversial - topics, steer clear and focus on creating a warm and pleasant experience.

So how do you teach your staff how to "give good conversation?" In addition to teaching by example (let mentees model you!), try role-playing. Establish mock scenarios where you describe the contact; their role; the environment; and perhaps whether or not there is a business opportunity (stage of buying process; stage of project; etc). At first, many of us (me included!) dread role-playing. But once you step into a role, and realize that you are not being judged, but instead supported, then it becomes an invaluable tool for collaborative learning and instilling good habits. l


About the author: Anne Scarlett is President of Scarlett Consulting  and provides marketing advisory services to the A/E/C industry. Anne writes for a wide range of business publications, including RainToday, where this article was originally published. Anne can be reached by calling 773-251-8132


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