February 17, 2011

The Value of Small Talk

I’ve never liked small talk, although I’ve always been good at. Bummer. It’s a law of the universe that whatever you do well you will be consigned to do repeatedly.

So off I go into every crowd, smiling and chatting, feeling like my face will freeze in a toothy grin while my head explodes from pointless chatter.

I’m not doing much to sell this concept, am I?

Well, I am exaggerating a bit. I do enjoy connecting up with folks, even if my natural introversion means that my enjoyment usually fades very quickly. Still, I have to admit that this skill does comes in handy. Since I’m comfortable talking to others, I get to meet people in all kinds of circumstances. Even sales calls are not so difficult, since I know that I’ll at least make an acquaintance, even if I don’t make a sale.

For job seekers, the value of this skill should be obvious: If you can meet more people, you can stay connected to more possibilities for job leads and helpful information. And you can do better in interviews, where half the grade comes from how well the team or manager likes you.

Mastering the art of small talk really boils down to just a handful of steps.

1. Start with an icebreaker. The obvious ones are fine: "What do you think of this weather?" Your goal is straightforward: Open the conversation, but don’t say anything too controversial. As long as you leave a spot for the other person to reply, you’re good.

2. Ask a question. Once the other person has replied, and assuming they didn’t open up a better line of conversation, you can bring things to the next level: “Are you a regular at these meetings?” or perhaps, "Can you fill me in on what I missed in the first session?"

3. Listen. Let the other person respond, and really listen to them. Then decide if there’s any chance (or reason) to bring the conversation to something more helpful, such as their advice to you about particular companies to work for. If not, just enjoy the conversation for what it is, then refocus on the meeting or whatever else you’re doing.

This is a good skill to practice every chance you get. The better you become at talking with others about nothing, the more likely you’ll be comfortable with the conversations that really matter.

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