Small Talk Matters: Here’s How to Improve Your Own Skills

BY Jessica Helinski
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Love or loathe small talk, it’s an inescapable part of being a salesperson. Whether it’s during a networking event or at the office, with someone you just met or an old client, as a sales rep, you will engage in small talk often in your career. If you find that small talk isn’t a strong point, or you want to brush up on your skills as you head back to the office soon, speech trainer and journalist John Bowe shares some excellent advice. In his article, he points out things that one shouldn’t do when making small talk to ensure everyone’s comfort and a connection is made. Three of his behaviors to avoid are discussed below.

1. Assume that nobody wants to talk to you

2. Interrupting or intruding upon an existing conversation

3. Talking too much about yourself — or about the other person

Small talk’s surprising sweet spot

There is actually, according to Bowe, an aspect of small talk than many people miss out on: empathy. Throughout every communication, even the smallest conversations, being empathetic to the others involved is a best practice. “Like any other form of public speaking — yes, elevator banter counts — small talk skills have nothing to do with your personality, and everything to do with learning to empathize with your audience,” he explains. He goes on to share things to NOT do when making small talk with others, and his tips all involve an empathetic angle.

Assuming that nobody wants to talk to you

Reps might avoid small talk because they feel no one wants to talk to them. Typically, this stems from shyness and insecurity on the part of the rep. Instead of thinking about oneself, salespeople should shift their concern to others. As Bowe explains, “think of reaching out as an act of service. After so many months of social isolation due to the pandemic, odds are enormous that the person next to you is just as eager to make a connection.” The other person might even be flattered by or proud of your interest in speaking with them. 

Interrupting or intruding upon an existing conversation

Any connection you make during small talk will likely be marred impoliteness. 

No matter how much you want to speak with someone, hold off if they are already engaged in another conversation. It can be tempting to be impatient, especially if you think you might not get another chance to speak with the person. But interrupting will likely come across as rude and annoying. Pause for a lull in the conversation, or if you’re at an event, wait until it ends to pursue small talk.

Talking too much about yourself — or about the other person

Small talk, especially when it’s with someone you don’t know, can feel awkward. Often, it’s easy to talk about what you know: yourself. Or, maybe the other person is someone you hope to pursue as a lead, and you want to know as much as you can about them. Bowe urges you to be mindful in these situations. It’s important to show interest in the other person, especially if you want to earn their business. But you need to make inquiries in moderation. “Nobody likes to feel interrogated, so if you sense that questions aren’t welcome, back off,” he suggests. “Instead, tell a story, offer an opinion or otherwise relieve them of the burden of performance. If you can’t sense where their interests lie, try asking about subjects you’re interested in (e.g., ‘Hey, do you think this shirt looks funny?’ or ‘Have you been to any good, new restaurants in this area lately?’)."

Small talk, like any other part of sales, can take some practice to master. By being thoughtful about how you engage and approaching each conversation from a place of empathy, you boost your chances of making a genuine connection and walking away with something valuable. As Bowe writes, “It’s easy to dismiss small talk as an insincere, unwanted and unimportant social nicety. But every relationship you value began somewhere — with an initial conversation.”

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions