Making a Big Deal Out of Small Talk
by Dianna Booher

Not all speech is created equal. Keynote addresses, press conferences, sermons, lectures, gossip - they definitely do not evoke the same response.

While the higher profile forms of communication make all the headlines, don't underestimate the potential of small talk. Just because it's small doesn't mean it can't have big impact. 

More and more, those seemingly insignificant discussions on golf courses, at cafeterias, and around copy machines are making their way into boardrooms and executive suites.

Small talk can be a simple yet effective way of building rapport and trust with co-workers as well as clients and prospects and can reap big rewards for those who know how to seize the opportunity. What you say when you're "just standing around" may be the most important thing you articulate all day.

Choose the right person. Not everyone is a candidate for small talk. Some people dislike any involvement or contact with others at all. They see it not as an opportunity for rapport building but as an infringement and inconvenience. Engaging them may not only irritate them but cause future complications for you.

Others may welcome an idle word or two, seeing conversation as a way of making business and the office more personal. Fellow attendees at a workshop, collaborators on a project, or employees at a year-end party can all make good small talk companions. 

Choosing the right person can mean the difference between five wasted minutes and a partnership that could last years. Knowing whom to approach isn't difficult; simply read the body-language signals and respect their wishes. 

Choose the right time. When thinking of entering into small talk, be sensitive to the other person's mood and circumstances. What may be a coffee break for you may be a pressing deadline for someone else.

On an airplane, when your seatmate is obviously preoccupied, leave him or her alone. Neither would you try to engage someone in small talk when the person is dashing down the hallway to make a meeting. 

And if the CEO has unexpectedly called you in for a "little chat," this is neither the time nor the place to take the lead. Let him or her dictate the topic and pace with which you get down to business. 

Choose the right medium. If timing is everything, then selecting the right medium ranks a close second. 

Each means of communication, be it in person or via modern technology, has its own strengths and weaknesses. Marshall McLuhan, the mass media guru of the '60s, contended that the medium was the message - that each had its own dynamics and, therefore, effects. Knowing the uniqueness of each will help you use them more effectively.

The greatest danger regarding media involves those that aren't face to face - most notably, the telephone. Since you're not present to read their signals or note their feedback, you have no way to gauge their interest or availability. You're basically operating without a net.

Know where you're going with the call and be prepared to get there. If the other person sends you a cue that small talk is in order, you can always change course and take on a lighter mood. Don't assume that people expect or welcome a little chitchat before you begin your business.

Choose the right topic. The "what" of your small talk can be as crucial as the "who," "where," "when," and "why." General topics like vacations, hobbies, current projects, and sports are both interesting and conversational. They deal with more personal, friendly concerns. Other safe areas include the other person's area of expertise or your own, the day's news, or the latest movie you've seen.

"I've always been interested in sailing but have never tried it. Can you tell me more about it?" or "Have you spent your entire career in the communications industry?" or Everyone's talking about the latest Spielberg movie. Have you seen it?"

On the other hand, controversial topics like religion, politics, and race relations are not as appropriate for small talk and are better left to CNN or Meet the Press. Remember, your goal is to build rapport, not solve a world crisis. You may very well win an argument but lose an opportunity.

Small talk means having a little loose change in your pocket. Like quarters at a pay phone or dollars at a tollbooth, it'll come in handy when you least expect it. The trick is knowing when to jiggle it, spend it, or save it.

Author/speaker Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a Dallas-based communications training firm. Her programs include communication (writing, oral presentations, interpersonal, customer service communications, gender, listening, meetings, conflict) and life balance/productivity. She has published 40 books, including E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication (Pocket Books, February 2001), Communicate with Confidence! (McGraw-Hill), and The Esther Effect (Nelson-Word). Several have been major Book Club selections.
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