Recently, I met with a student who was traveling for a job interview; the organization’s offices were an hour from the airport and he would be picked up and driven back by the person overseeing the interview process. Overshadowing the candidate’s preparation for the interview was concern about what he could possibly talk about during the long car ride with a stranger-slash-potential boss. The weather? Sports? Politics? Music? While this was an extreme situation, as you engage in your first job search or if you’ve been in the world of work for some time, chances are you’ve found yourself in a professionally related situation that required “small talk.”
Like the business etiquette lessons you will find so useful throughout life, the ability to make small talk is an important skill to practice and develop, and one that will be more beneficial than you might think. Small talk can put you at ease during the job interviewing process, while meeting new colleagues or clients or at social events. It is a large component of successful networking; developing rapport with another through conversation and interest in a shared topic is an ideal way to create affiliation and forge strong and longstanding relationships.
So, how might you develop or improve your small talk skills? One strategy I have found very helpful is to read widely. In just a few moments, you can be well prepared for any situation that may involve small talk by reviewing the latest headlines of the New York Times or Washington Post, easily accessible online. Another fantastic resource I use often is National Public Radio, or NPR. Broadcast across the country and designed for an eclectic listener base, NPR frequently plays interesting short stories or interviews that cover everything from current events to art and lifestyle topics as well as entertainment and music of many genres. I have had several interesting discussions with new acquaintances on brief excerpts from StoryCorps on NPR (a famed oral history project preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress). The above mentioned sites are just a few of many widely available resources to aid you in developing a repertoire of topics to discuss.
Another key to effective small talk is to be observant as well as a careful listener. As you speak with someone new to you or who has been a colleague for some time, pay special attention to detail. You may learn that someone enjoys food by an innocuous comment made over a catered business lunch, leading to a spirited conversation on the area’s best restaurants. Or, a comment admiring someone’s jewelry or bag could inspire that person to share the story of where it was acquired and how much they enjoyed traveling to the country in which it was purchased. But, you say, what if the other person doesn’t respond or engage with my attempt? Remember that small talk is not formulaic, nor can it be forced. You may be surprised, though, how pleased others are to engage in conversation with you when you have an interesting way to start.