Raise your hand if you hate small talk.
For many, it’s up there with interviewing and public speaking and other highly feared (translation: detested) career tasks. But at least with interviewing or public speaking, you can see the trophy at the end of the race—i.e., if you do well, you could land a job or generate a ton of publicity for your brand. Moreover, you know that hiring managers and audiences prefer authenticity to canned, robotic performances, so you get to bring some of yourself to the task.
Small talk seems to have missed the authenticity memo. Thankfully, the word is out that conversation starters don’t have to be about the weather. But small talk is still—quite literally—defined as bland and unobjectionable. You’re supposed to get in, avoid offending anyone, and get out. Even the examples of small talk on the Merriam-Webster website are an absolute snoozefest: “They made small talk while waiting for the meeting to start. [A]t the corporate get-together we made the obligatory small talk with some people from the home office.” The only fun part of small talk’s entire entry is the “rhymes with” section (which is actually pretty fabulous).
The good news is: Small talk doesn’t have to suck. I know, because I actually enjoy it. How? I throw the rulebook out the window and try to make these quick exchanges sincere and meaningful. All it takes is three simple steps.
1. Reframe Your Role
Too often, people tend to focus on how small talk conflicts with how they see themselves. Small talk is fake, and I’m genuine. Small talk involves talking to people I don’t know, and I’m shy. Small talk is a waste of time, and I always cut to the chase.
OK, maybe you are all of those things. But hopefully, you have more than one word or phrase on your list of personal descriptors. Are you dynamic as well? Or perhaps you’re thoughtful—the kind of person who holds the door for the person behind you? Because you can bring those attributes to small talk.
Someone who is engaging can find a way to connect with a stranger. And, it’s kind and considerate to walk over to the person standing alone and strike up a conversation. So, the next time you’re at a company shindig, don’t “make obligatory small talk.” View this event as an opportunity to genuinely connect with your colleagues by using your own strengths. It will pay dividends in stronger working relationships.
2. Have a Solid Opener
I’m not here to hate on conversation starters. Sometimes a practiced introduction or segue gives you the confidence you need to start speaking with someone—and that’s undoubtedly valuable. Personally, I prefer to start with a good old-fashioned, “Hi, how are you?” or “Hi, I’m Sara,” accompanied with a warm smile. (Caveat: If the person is famous or we’ve met before, I always add, “We met at such-and-such event” to prevent the awkward: “Where do I know you from?”)
I like this approach for several reasons. It’s easy to remember. It prevents me from pre-judging who might want to talk about sports versus who would be interested in celebrity gossip. And if the person I approach blows me off, it’s not like I’ve already used my one brilliant opener and now must come up with something else.
Additionally, introducing yourself first will help combat your fears that small talk isn’t authentic. You’ll know that the other person isn’t talking to you just because you led with the fact that you were college roommates with the prestigious keynote speaker. Now, some people will respond to your introduction in a polite, but busy or forced manner. If the other person says a one-word answer and then looks around for someone else to speak with or keeps it moving, you know they’re uninterested—which is good, because then you can move on to someone who echoes your initial warmth (and share the hysterical college roommate story with him).
3. See the Value
Practice makes perfect. But, as anyone who was dragged kicking and screaming to violin lessons as a child knows, if you only practice when you’re absolutely forced to, it will take you significantly longer to master a skill than it would if you put the time in.
Remember, small talk gives you an excuse to practice building rapport. Just because you could stay tethered to the person you know best at networking events, and just because you could purposefully arrive as cocktail hour ends so there will be less opportunity for you to mingle, doesn’t mean you should. You could eat ice cream for dinner every night, too, but that’s not terribly nutritious.
When you avoid small talk as much as possible, you’re depriving yourself of chances to practice and improve. The more you talk to new people, the more fearless and capable and practiced you’ll feel—which will serve you well beyond networking events and company parties.