As an introvert in sales, small talk can be especially stress-inducing.
But fear not! You can craft a framework to remove the uncertainty, so you have a better idea of what to expect each time.
On a deeper level, small talk is an “honest” signal that demonstrates certain attributes about you, very quickly.
Things like: Are you socially intelligent, empathetic, warm?
It gives a chance for you to share information with your recipient so they can make an instinctual judgment of the situation (e.g. are you a threat? are you a pushy salesperson?)
Small talk is not meaningless, but the real purpose is not what the surface meaning appears to be. It’s what the surface displays and portrays.
The actual words take a back seat. Your tone, body language, appearance, and status are what’s really at play here.
Even on the surface level, without small talk, you rarely get to the real conversation. Small talk is the icebreaker that paves the way for a deeper conversation and genuine relationship.
Initiate Conversation – The Spark
The first step in small talk is initiating the conversation. The key here is simplicity.
For some reason, we think we need a fancy, charismatic, charming and clever opening line. That is just not the case and often comes off much worse when attempted. It helps if you’re interesting, but don’t worry about being clever.
I’ve put together a list of my personal favorites. Once again, the key here is simplicity and finding a few go-to ones that you don’t feel nervous asking.
Similar to the copywriting principle of headline writing, the only goal of the headline is to get them to read the opening line of your copy. Same with this conversation starter here, the only purpose is to help your recipient feel comfortable about responding, and you can take the conversation anywhere you want after that.
“Do you live around here?”
“What’s your dog’s name?”
In college classroom:
“What do you think will be on the exam?”
“I was absent yesterday. What did we talk about?”
At sporting event:
“Who do you think will win?”
“What do you suppose the artist wanted to say?”
“Your lawn is so green. What’s your secret?”
“What kind of running shoes are those?”
Simplicity is key. Find one you feel comfortable with, and stick with it.
Continue the Conversation – Ask Compelling Questions that FLOW
Everyone asks questions, but how many of them are designed to effectively promote conversation? When your questions fail to spark anything worthwhile, the problem is probably not because your conversational partner is boring. Rather, the way you phrased them!
Here are some ideas how you can keep the conversation flowing.
My Favorites (Social):
What do you like to do outside of work?
What kind of activities are you interested in?
What kind of hobbies do you enjoy?
What do you think of the movie/restaurant/party?
Tell me about the best vacation you’ve ever taken
What is one thing you would like to own? Why?
Tell me about one of your favorite relatives
What was it like in the town where you grew up?
What do you think is the perfect age?
What is a typical day like for you?
Of all the places you lived, tell me about the one you like best
What are some of your family traditions?
Who were your idols as a kid? How have these changed?
Describe a memorable teacher you had?
Tell me about a movie you have seen more than once?
What’s your favorite restaurant?
Tell me why you were named _____
Tell me about a place you have visited that you hope never to return?
What’s the best surprise you’ve even received?
What’s the best surprise you’ve planned for someone and pulled off?
Who is the most famous person you’ve ever met?
Tell me one of your New Year’s resolutions
What’s your favorite thing to do alone?
Tell me something most people would never know about you
What would you do if you won a million bucks?
My Favorites (Business):
What do you think of…? (news story)
How did you get started in your business?
Describe a typical day on the job
What did you do before you joined your company?
Have you ever wanted to own your own business?
How did you come up with this idea?
What ways have you found most effective for promoting your business?
What got you interested in marketing/research/teaching?
What do you enjoy most about your profession?
If you had to choose another profession, what would it be? Why?
What separates your firm from your competition?
Describe some challenges of your profession?
What new trends do you see coming in our industry?
What advice would you give for someone just starting out in your business?
Here are some examples of specific questions you can ask after someone makes a statement:
“I just got back from France.”
What was the weather like there?
How did you manage to communicate with the French?
Tell me the most memorable thing that happened?
How did you manage to get hotel rooms over there?
In what way was the food there different from what we have here?
“I am a high school counselor.”
Why did you decide to become a counselor?
What did you have to do to enter the field?
What are some problems that kids often come to you with?
What role are drugs playing on campus today?
How does listening to troubles all day affect your outlook on life?
What do you do for fun when you’re not counseling?
For more examples, check out How To Start A Conversation And Make Friends
Compliments – Be Honest & Specific
Honest compliments are one of the nicest things you can do for someone to brighten their day.
In fact, giving compliments is a form of leadership and influence, because people love to be around positive people, and will be more likely to follow your example and listen to your ideas.
The key to a good compliment is to be specific. As humans, we are generally skeptical of big claims and generalities. But when someone can see our specific “greatness,” their words carry credibility and power.
For example, if we say, “You have beautiful eyes,” we are focusing on an obvious physical trait and inviting an awkward silence or a polite “thanks.” However, if we ask “That scarf compliments your beautiful eyes—where did you find it?” our compliment seems genuine, and we invite further conversation without embarrassing the person.
It’s also important to remember that some of the best compliments have nothing to do with a person’s physical appearance. For example, you might say “It was very brave of you to speak your mind on that topic. Were you nervous?” or “It must have taken a lot of courage to go on that trip. What was the highlight for you?”
Why is this important? It’s because people cannot always control their physical appearance. In fact, even some of the most beautiful people might be uncomfortable being complimented or judged on their appearance alone. So instead of focusing your compliments on someone’s appearance, look for ways to compliment people for their character, their actions, and their choices.
Basic (not very good):
Behavior: You’re a good teacher
Appearance: You have a nice haircut
Possessions: I like your shoes
Use their name and be more specific (better):
Behavior: Alan, I like the way you come around during exercises and give each of us your personal attention.
Appearance: Alan, I think that new styling really highlights your eyes.
Possessions: Alan, those tan loafers go well with your khaki pants.
Add specifics and follow with a question to help your recipient not feel awkward (best):
Behavior: Alan, I like the way you come around during exercises and give each of us your personal attention. Tell me, what’s the single most common error you observe?
Appearance: Alan, I think that new styling really highlights your eyes. How did you happen to try it?
Possessions: Alan, those tan loafers go well with your khaki pants. What made you decide to select that style?
For more examples, check out The Fine Art of Small Talk
Compliments also encourage those who are struggling, especially novices. Studies have shown that when it comes to helping someone reach their goal, positive feedback is most effective for beginners. Negative feedback helps to motivate experts to improve faster (since they are primarily concerned about evaluating their rate of progress).
Beginners, on the other hand, are more concerned with the question: “can I do this?”, so an honest compliment helps let them know they are on the right track.
So a compliment (especially in the beginning) can truly be what that stands between someone being successful and giving up. Stand in that gap and offer an encouraging word to a friend or associate.
Compliments convey respect and build strong relationships.
You don’t have to fear Small Talk!
You can do it. Introverts are taking over complicated sales roles, especially in the software industry. But to reach your greatest potential, mastering small talk is important. With this framework, you can turn those awkward beginnings into fun, useful, and meaningful interactions.