Making Small Talk (BIG)

by Tim Hurson and Tim Dunne

Published: Monday, December 29, 2014   /   Categories: Leadership

We all know that first impressions count. Those first few moments of your interaction are where you set the stage, either for success—or for recess.
Do you really want to burn them talking about the weather?

The Power of Small Talk

Your ultimate goal for every initial business meeting should be to demonstrate that you can useful to the person sitting in front of you. One of the most effective
—and memorable—ways of achiving that goal is through the deliberate, strategic use of small talk.
Does that sound counter-intuitive?
It shouldn't—because small talk, when used skillfully, is much more than just idle chatter. Historically, in royal courts from Britain to China, salons from Paris to Prague, and boardrooms from Amsterdam to New York, small talk has been the essential lubricant for the world's most challenging and significant accords
—in politics, in society, in business.

Here's a simple illustration from the world of business. It's probably not very different from situations you've encountered dozens of times:
In the final month before one of us (Tim Dunne) left his sales job in the banking industry, he was handing off several clients to his replacement, Karl. Tim and Karl traveled from Boston to Chicago to meet David, the CFO of a large real estate firm. David was late for the meeting, and had asked his assistant to let them wait in his office.
Ten minutes later, David rushed in and said, "Sorry I’m late, I just got back from vacation, and of course everyone's playing the I-need-you-urgently game." He was obviously a little distracted, not the best way for the meeting to begin.
Karl said, "I know what you mean... Where'd you go on vacation?
"Karl's unexpected question put the brakes on David's warp drive. He paused for a beat and looked at Karl quizzically. "We have a house a couple of hours north of here in the Michigan lakes area.
"Karl replied, "No kidding? My wife's from Michigan. We vacation in the Michigan lakes every summer."
And everyone knows what happened next: Before the 'business' of the meeting started, a conversation broke out about this golf course and that renovated hotel, this beach and that funky little restaurant. And before Tim had had a chance to actually introduce them to each other, David and Karl were sharing experiences and stories. As Tim put it later, "I was supposed to be introducing them, and instead, I was just sitting there feeling kind of left out of their animated chat."

Small Talk and Being Useful

To be truly useful you need to understand your prospect’s situation. In order to do that, you have to be able to dig, to ask questions—often tough questions—that the person sitting in front of you is willing to answer. And in order for that to happen, you need to earn credibility.
In our book, Never Be Closing, we discuss three routes to the kind of credibility you need for people to be willing to answer probing, sometimes even uncomfortable, questions:
    ---discovery of one or more shared communities
    ---demonstrated mastery of meeting skills and process protocol
    ---demonstrated professional expertise, experience, or knowledge
Within seconds of meeting David, through the skillful use of small talk, Karl was able to access a shared community (people who know the Michigan lakes area) and strengthen the sharing even further (people who enjoyed the same restaurant and perhaps who even knew the same people).
Was that enough to ensure David would be willing to answer the probing questions Karl would need to ask to figure out how to be useful?
That would depend on David's own personal style and orientation to people, social situations, and communicaiton dynamics. For some people, a sense of shared community provides enough comfort and credibility that they’ll happily move to the exploration part of the meeting. One thing is for sure: Karl was closer to earning that credibility than he was before the small talk.
Was Karl lucky? Was it a million to one shot that he'd discover the Michigan lakes connection? Yes and no. Sure, the connection itself is an outside chance. But Karl also created the opportunity for his luck—and for the connection—by paying attention, by being curious, and by disclosing something about himself.
Karl made small talk big. As a result, his relationship—and his business—with David blossomed, For years, every time they got together, there was another Michigan lakes story to share. In time, they became genuine friends.
Here's a simple list of the small talk skills Karl practiced that can increase the opportunities for connections to happen. Try them, make them into habits, and see if they work for you.

Five Steps to Making Small Talk Big

1. Follow your curiosity. Focus on what you are genuinely interested in. In the lobby, waiting area, or your client’s office, look at the walls. See what’s around you that piques your interest. The photo of the ribbon cutting? The artwork in the lobby? The trophy in the glass case? Authentic connections begin with authentic curiosity.Find something you’re curious about, and…
2. Ask. Karl asked David where he went on vacation. Karl wouldn’t have had the chance to be lucky if he hadn’t asked the question.Make it a habit to ask questions that aren’t about business, and to…
3. Make it Personal. It might be your only chance to access information about your client or prospect that’s outside of their work role. Don’t waste that time talking about the weather and the traffic.By making small talk personal, you give yourself the chance to…
4. Disclose. When you tell something about yourself, it offers the person you’re talking to an opportunity to make a connection to you. Disclosure invites disclosure. Tell something about you, and you create space for your client to find shared community. Karl did both. He asked where David vacationed, and he disclosed his connection to Michigan’s lakes.And time is short, so…
5. Start right away. The moment you enter your client's building, start noticing what topics grab your interest. Small talk usually lasts for less than ten minutes, and begins when someone comes to the waiting area to meet you. Often, that person will be a part of the meeting you're about to have. There are a multitude of conversation starters if you pay attention to what's around you, and what’s happening.When you know why you're engaging in it and how it can help you run a more effective meeting, the habits that make small talk even more useful are simple and obvious. How simple and obvious? It boils down to this:
Ask about anything that geniunely stimulates your curiousty. Then explain why you’re curious about it.
By asking about what you are authentically curious about, and disclosing why you’re curious, you increase the odds you'll find connections, access shared community, and build your credibility. Establishing credibility, in turn, will advance you to the next step in the meeting process, in which your client or prospect is willing to answer the questions you ask.
Will small talk always win you credibility? Not necessarily.
But as Wayne Gretzky says: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

We hope you found the ideas in this post useful. They’re culled from our book: Never Be Closing.Never Be Closing is currently recommended in three “Best of 2014” lists:Oprah Winfrey's OWN “15 Can-Do Strategies for Becoming More Successful”Inc.com's “The Seven Most Useful How-To-Sell Books of 2014”ringDNA's “The Seven B2B Sales Books You Have to Read in 2015”                                                                                 Article by Tim Hurson and Tim Dunne


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