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Always tongue-tied? Learn to be a chatterbox

In “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” Debra Fine offers advice on becoming a master conversationalist in any situation. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: Weekend Today

Do you spend an abnormal amount of time hiding out in the bathroom or hanging out at the buffet table at social gatherings? In “The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Networking Skills — and Leave a Positive Impression!,” Debra Fine teaches you how to feel more comfortable in any type of social situation. Fine visited “Weekend Today” to discuss her book. Here's an excerpt:

What’s the big deal about small talk?
You pull into the parking lot, turn off the engine, and sit for a minute dreading the next two hours. An important client has invited you to an open house in celebration of their new downtown office. You hate these things. You don’t know what to say, you don’t know anyone except the client, and you always feel like you’re trying not to look lost; so you eat and drink more than you should, just to stay occupied. You must attend — that’s a given — but you sink deeper into the front seat and agonize over how long you have to stay. Will dropping by for thirty minutes do the trick, or will you insult one of your best clients if you don’t stay for the whole event? You search for excuses to get yourself out of there early. You could have someone page you at a specified time with a supposed emergency; perhaps one of the kids has a big game; or maybe you’ll just allow your anxiety to carry you right into an illness.

Casual conversation happens at least a dozen times a day — on the way into the office, picking up your daughter from soccer practice, riding the elevator with a colleague, fielding a phone call from your mother-in-law, attending an industry meeting, taking a client to lunch, going to a job interview — the list is endless! Yet for some of us, these demands for small talk don’t ever make small talk any easier. If anything, such encounters increase anxiety and cause some people to dread social events, business lunches, and chance encounters with neighbors. Unfortunately, in our preoccupation with our own discomfort, our neighbors, acquaintances, and associates label us distant, cold, and reserved.

Remember Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town? On the morning of his son’s wedding, Frank Gibbs, the neighborly physician, confesses to his wife that his chief concern in the early days of their own marriage was how to make small talk with his bride. “I was afraid,” he tells her, “we wouldn’t have material for conversation more’n’d last us a few weeks.” It seems acquiring small talk skills is not exclusively a modern-day quest.

If your conversations evaporate almost as soon as they’ve begun, or if you’re a reluctant participant at social and business get-togethers, you’ve come to the right place. This book will help you acquire the conversation skills you need to feel confident and poised in any situation. If you practice the simple techniques revealed here, you’ll put your conversational demons behind you. You will learn how to:

  • Engage any individual in a meaningful dialogue
  • Resuscitate a dying conversation
  • Transition into new topics
  • Feel more at ease at networking events, parties, and receptions
  • Develop business friendships
  • Step out of a conversation with grace

Getting to the big stuff
Small talk has a bad rap as the lowly stepchild of real conversation, yet it serves an extremely important function. Without it, you rarely get to the real conversation. Small talk is the icebreaker that clears the way for more intimate conversation, laying the foundation for a stronger relationship. People who excel at small talk are experts at making others feel included, valued, and comfortable. And that goes a long way toward furthering a business relationship, closing a deal, opening the door for romance, or making a friend.

The good news about conversation skills is that anyone can learn them. Don’t be fooled into thinking that all those other people you see who are smiling and happily mingling come by it naturally. Sure, some are natural-born talkers, but most have had to work at it. They’ve practiced, attended seminars, hired personal coaches, and read books. You don’t think so? Trust me, I know. I used to be a geeky, introverted engineer — no one has worse skills than I once did. I became a pro by learning the skills and then practicing them. It’s that simple.

The first step is to let go of the idea that we are all somehow supposed to know how to converse with strangers and acquaintances. It’s simply not true. We are not taught how to do it, nor is there some biological mechanism that instinctively takes over when we find ourselves in a conversational quandary.

Mark McCormack, an attorney from Cleveland who founded one of the first sports management firms in the United States, once said, “All things being equal, people will buy from a friend. All things being not quite so equal, people will still buy from a friend.” The bottom line: It’s to your benefit to cultivate friendships, not just collect business cards.

The art of conversation is poised to enjoy a revival. Twenty years ago John Naisbitt, in his book Megatrends, spoke to a future world focused on high tech yet longing for high touch. This high-tech world would place us farther away from our nuclear families, communicating with our colleagues and friends via faxes, e-mails, and cell phones rather than face-to-face. Driving in and out of our homes via the garage-door opener without any interaction with our neighbors. Our new way of living, working, and commuting would create a void of connection with others.

Today we find ourselves exactly as Naisbitt forecasted — isolated in our niche, cubicle, or lifestyle. Membership in civic, religious, and business associations and organizations has declined because we have lost the ability to connect. Yet because of the events of September 11, 2001, not only do we Americans share a common experience of great magnitude, but now more than ever we long to communicate with each other about terrorism, war, and sometimes anything but terrorism and war. When a pilot has to instruct his passengers departing Denver International Airport on the weekend following September 11 to introduce themselves and learn about each other, then we have truly lost the art of conversation. It has become our custom to be so respectful of each other’s space — or instead, so fearful of rejection — that we no longer know how to begin a conversation with strangers, let alone keep one going. Yet because of the longing for high touch, combined with the need for reaching out because of our shared national tragedy, the art of conversation will bloom.

We become better conversationalists when we employ two primary objectives. Number one: Take the risk. It is up to us to take the risk of starting a conversation with a stranger. We cannot hope that others will approach us; instead, even if we are shy, it is up to us to make the first move. We all fear rejection at some level. Just remind yourself that there are more dire consequences in life than a rejection by someone at a networking event, singles function, back-to-school night, or association meeting. Number two: Assume the burden. It is up to each and every one of us to assume the burden of conversation. It is our responsibility to come up with topics to discuss; it is up to us to remember people’s names and to introduce them to others; it is up to us to relieve the awkward moments or fill the pregnant pause. Most of us hope others will assume these tasks. It is up to us to assume the burden of other people’s comfort. If others are comfortable in our presence, then they will feel good about doing business or socializing with us.

Talk is cheap ... but very valuable
Small talk is essential to creating and enriching business relationships. Always begin and end your business conversation with small talk to humanize the relationship. Investors choose financial planners as much for their ability to make them feel secure and comfortable as they do for their financial savvy. How important is your physician’s bedside manner to you? Hairstylists are the consummate conversationalists. They understand that no woman will spend the better part of an hour or more sitting in a chair at the mercy of someone with a sharp instrument unless she feels comfortable!

In an indirect but very important way, small talk relates to how businesses and individuals spend money. In general, people and organizations spend money for two reasons:

  • To solve a problem or fill a need. Think about it. You dash into a fast-food restaurant for lunch so you can spare yourself from packing leftovers. You hire a babysitter so you can escape for an evening out. You pay a lawn-care company to cut your grass so you can enjoy more free time and fewer allergy symptoms.
  • To gain good, positive feelings. My neighbor Susan continues banking with the same institution even though another bank in our neighborhood offers a better free-checking deal — because she likes the people. My friend Vince moved to the opposite side of town and still drives back to the old neighborhood to take his dog to the vet. Although he and the vet do not socialize together, he can’t imagine going anywhere else. He likes that particular vet.

A good conversationalist frequently evokes the positive feelings that people long to have, and the reality is that buyers’ choices about where to spend their money are influenced by the presence or absence of rapport. Small talk is a big deal because it is integral to establishing rapport. Parents and teachers visit before a conference to create a bond. Mortgage brokers chat with referral sources like title companies and Realtors to strengthen the relationship and garner business. Even a minimal amount of pleasant small talk will make prospective customers remember you better than they remember your competitor.

It’s a tough and fast world. The news media provides more bad news than good. People appreciate a conversation in which they feel acknowledged, heard, and significant. While it’s understood that people seek these benefits in conversations with friends, it’s also true that people choose to buy goods and services from individuals perceived as warm, friendly, and caring. From the senior executive of a large corporation selecting a supplier, to a parent picking up a few groceries, to the account executive calling a courier — buying decisions are all influenced by the rapport that has been established with the other party.

Garner big gains with a little talking
Effective managers use small talk at the front end of a meeting to set the tone for discussion and to create a bridge to more meaningful, and perhaps difficult, dialogue. Casual conversation and informal icebreakers offer opportunities to build rapport, create a cohesive team, and increase the chances of success.

By developing your conversation skills, you can even improve communication with your children. You’ll recognize the most repeated question in parenting — How was school? — as a conversation killer. You can avoid the usual one-word response — Fine — and instead create a dialogue. Imagine, you may actually gain insight into what they’re learning and who their friends are!

Small talk is no small thing. It’s a valuable personal and professional thread that connects people. Appreciating the power of small talk is the first step. By recognizing its value, you’ll be more inclined to acquire the skills. If you thought small talk was all about becoming a smooth-talking used-car salesperson, you were mistaken. Small talk is the verbal equivalent of that first domino: It starts a chain reaction with all kinds of implications for your life.

This book is filled with techniques and hints to give you the skills to enjoy the perks of quality conversation. You won’t necessarily decide that you love networking events or cocktail parties, but you will have the skills to be successful at them. Like me, you may still prefer to stay at home with a good book rather than attend an event where you don’t know anyone. There’s no denying that it takes effort to mingle at an open house when the room is full of strangers. However, there’s also no denying that there are plenty of events we’re expected to attend. So it makes sense to maximize your opportunities, and improved conversation skills will do just that. By the time you finish this book, you’ll have the information and resources at your disposal to make you a successful conversationalist at any function. Improving your conversation skills can enhance your leadership abilities, reduce your anxiety in social situations, boost your confidence, lead you to new friendships, and more. Before you know it, you might actually enjoy making small talk!

Excerpted from “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” by Debra Fine. Copyright © 2005, Debra Fine. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.