Six Reasons Small Talk Is Very Important---And How To Get Better At It

I’m not a small-talk fan. “Hot enough for you today?” Who cares, I can’t do anything about it. “Pollen’s really bad this year, huh?” Yes.

So what’s the point of it all? Why don’t we just agree to ride the elevator or wait at the DMV in peace?

Because small talk is where it all begins---and if you want to get somewhere, it helps, we’re told, to start at the beginning.

If that logic doesn’t satisfy, and because bullet points are comforting, here are six reasons that small talk can have a big impact (not least on the 20% of U.S. citizens who aren’t working or actively  looking for work but who’d really like a job):

---You Have No Idea Where It Will Go. Small talk is a gift rarely found in nature or the financial markets: It is a free option---that is, an investment with no initial cost, no risk (other than a temporarily bruised ego) and unlimited upside. Small talk can lead to a host of outcomes, from a merely pleasant exchange to the signing of multimillion-dollar business deal. When a free option comes along, you take it---every time.

---It Makes You Smarter. A recent study by researchers at the University Of Michigan found that friendly, social interaction can boost our ability to solve problems---as, say, working a crossword puzzle might. That’s because, as Oscar Ybarra, a psychologist at the university explained: “Some social interactions induce people to try to read others’ minds and take their perspective on things.” (“Social” being the operative word: When conversations had a competitive edge, cognitive performance didn’t budge.) For the full study, click here.

---It Feels Good. Some days the very thought of returning a verbal volley can feel exhausting. Think about it, though: How many times did a little light banter leave you feeling…a little lighter? Humans are social beings: We crave connection---that’s why Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is worth $17.5 billion---and small talk, while maybe not scintillating, is a way to connect.

---It Opens Your Eyes. Small talk makes you pay attention. Yoga types call it “living in the present.” I call it “putting down your stupid smart phone long enough to have a conversation with a human being in three dimensions.” Whatever you call it, it’s a good thing.

---You’ll Be Liked. If you want, as the book says, to make friends and influence people, being liked is important. People like people who are generous (and confident) enough to engage them. Small talk isn’t just about being gregarious or entertaining---it’s a gesture of respect.

---You Have No Choice. Getting a job, working with colleagues, winning new clients, entertaining existing ones---all of it requires small talk. Want to be on a path to the 1%? Better have the gift of gab. As Scott Hoover, associate professor of finance at Washington and Lee University, writes in his excellent primer How To Get A Job On Wall Street: “In trying to generate business, the deal pitch is obviously critical. What is not so obvious is that simple, seemingly innocuous conversation with potential clients can be just as important. Companies want to hire people who can think on their feet.” (For more useful nuggets like that, check out Ten Things They Don’t Tell You In Business School.)

Now that you’re convinced small talk is worth the effort, here’s how to get better at it. Ready? Practice. Try stuff out, see what works. That’s it. As for technique, remember the basics: make eye contact, drop a compliment (if you mean it), share a common experience (while keeping the focus on the other person), and don’t be too self-conscious.

Short on confidence? No problem. Even big dogs have confidence issues. Here's some sage advice from psychiatrist, executive coach and Forbes contributor Steven Berglas:

“Building self-confidence is a two-phase process. The first phase involves purging yourself of self-doubt; in the second, you build up your confidence. It’s like erecting a skyscraper: First you clear the site and lay a solid foundation, then you stack the superstructure. How high you go--how much confidence you muster--is up to you.”

Click here to read Berglas’ 10-step process for building your confidence and putting extra sizzle in your small talk.

Have tips for the terminally shy and tongue-tied? Help ‘em out by commenting on this post.

And, of course, don’t forget to check the latest weather report.

 

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