The Art of Small Talk in Business

In the business world, the devil is far too often in the detail. This doesn’t just extend to the practicalities of the deal, but in actually getting the deal itself. As every businessman knows, the clincher is often in the result of a connection with a peer that smoothes the act of getting the business done.

These relationships are built up over time, but they always begin with small talk. In the past 10 years ‘networking’ has become a well established buzz word. Some people thrive in a networking situation, but many people find the situation of forcing conversation quite a challenge.

Useful murmurs or white noise
Dubbed ‘grooming at arm’s length’ (in a primate sense of the word) by Princeton researchers who have released a recent study on the matter, the crux of small talk is not what you are saying but the social function that the act serves. Consequently, there are social protocols that need to be acknowledged – namely knowing when to small talk and when to shut up!

Some business people will refer to small talk as ‘white noise’. In their eyes it is a case of meaningless platitudes that take up too much time and detract from the business at hand. However, this is often a reflection of the person. If you are at the top of your game you have the luxury of being able to dispense with such niceties, contrived or otherwise, because people are queuing up for a piece of you.

However, for many on the lower rungs of the career ladder, small talk is a way of cementing ties and finding common ground to build future relationships. I am often asked for tips on small talk and my number one tip is ‘know your audience’. This is as relevant one-to-one as it is to working a seminar room or conference hall. You have to learn to read the signs that others give you and take your lead from there.

Tips for small talk
When should I use small talk?: It’s simple. If somebody engages in small talk, then reciprocate. If somebody stonewalls your every attempt at non-business chit chat, then don’t. The world is made up of different personalities, some we have more in common with than others, so don’t try and force it.

What are good small talk topics?: There is no silver bullet I’m afraid. What you are looking for is a topic that is engaging and ideally a shared interest that will give you a connection so, just like any good detective you are looking for clues, visual and conversational that can help you. Definite topics to avoid are your political manifesto, religious prosetlysing and bad mouthing your company.

It is perfectly fine to start a conversation off with something fairly ‘vanilla’ and remember that talk is only as small as you make it. The key is to ask open questions and really listen to the answer and then build a conversation from that. Ask open questions that do not elicit a yes or no response and you will be away.

One small talk certainty I can attest to is that the British will inevitably talk about the weather. We all do it, are conscious that we do it, often hate ourselves in the process of doing it, but once started (so long as we are engaging with a fellow country man or woman) we can’t seem to stop….

Luan de Burgh

September 2016

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of The de Burgh Group – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.