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6 Easy Ways to Make Small Talk

A woman smiles while making small talk before a meeting.


By John Millen

A few years ago I was working with a CEO on an investor presentation. Let’s call him Steve. We decided to grab lunch and hopped on the elevator. A few floors down the doors opened and a couple of his employees got on.

Steve, the CEO, was looking down. Steve looked up and said “good morning” to the employees then looked back down at the ground. Steve wasn’t being mean, he told me later, he just feels awkward making small talk.

And he’s not alone. I have a lot of clients and friends, very smart people, who don’t like small talk. Some think it’s too trivial, some consider themselves uninteresting, some fear open-endedness and others fear rejection.

With this in mind, I’m going to discuss the art of small talk in business, and how it can help you build relationships, establish trust and open doors to new opportunities.

For full disclosure, as my wife will attest, I’m an incessant small talker everywhere, and I mean everywhere I go: the grocery store, hotel lobby, doctor’s office and elsewhere.

I hear the most fascinating stories and often make friends on the spot. We trade numbers and develop ongoing relationships. It’s a real thing.

First, let’s define what we mean by small talk. Simply put, it’s the casual conversation that happens before or after a formal business meeting, conference, or networking event. 

It’s the chat you have with a colleague while waiting for a meeting to start, or the brief exchange with a potential client at a trade show booth. While it may seem inconsequential, small talk can have a big impact on your business relationships and your professional success.

Here are six easy ways to make small talk effectively:

1. Be prepared

Before attending a business event or meeting, do some research on the attendees or speakers. Check their LinkedIn profiles, company websites, and social media accounts to learn more about their interests, hobbies, or recent achievements. 

This will give you some topics to bring up in your small talk and help you make a positive impression.

2. Start with a question

People love to talk about themselves, so ask open-ended questions that invite the other person to share their thoughts and experiences. Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” 

Instead, ask questions that show you’re interested in learning more, such as “What inspired you to pursue this line of work?” or “What’s been your biggest challenge in your current role?”

3. Listen actively 

Pay attention to the other person’s responses and show that you’re engaged in the conversation. Nod your head, make eye contact, and ask follow-up questions that demonstrate you’re listening and interested in what they have to say. This is how you'll find ways to make your small talk meaningful.

4. Look for common ground 

Finding shared interests or experiences can help you establish a connection and build rapport with the other person. For example, if you both enjoy hiking or have kids in the same age range, you can bond over those topics and create a memorable interaction.

This common ground will frequently occur as you listen to how they answered your questions. When you hear an interesting shared connection start to go deeper by asking more questions and sharing your own experiences. This will start to strengthen a bond between the two of you.

5. Keep it professional 

While small talk is more casual than a formal business meeting, it’s still important to maintain a professional demeanor. Avoid controversial topics, gossip, or personal issues that might offend or embarrass the other person.

As your relationship develops you can become more casual in the future.

6. Follow up 

If you make a positive connection during small talk, follow up with the person later on to reinforce the relationship. If it feels right, ask to trade phone numbers or emails. 

If that’s too forward, take out your phone and offer to connect on LinkedIn. Look the person up while you’re talking and send an invite on the spot.

When you’ve made this connection, be sure to follow up in the next week to continue building your relationship: a call, coffee or a business meeting. 

In conclusion, small talk can be a powerful tool in your business and life, helping you build relationships, establish trust, and open doors to new opportunities. 

By following these tips and being genuine, attentive, and professional, you can make the most of your small talk and set the stage for success in your career.

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John Millen

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