Small talk can be anything but small. It can make moments better. It can liven up a party. It can lead to friendships, deep relationships, and connections. And if you run a business or often meet with people in professional settings, small talk can be the key to engaging new clients or customers, winning sales, and establishing trust.
But making conversation doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Many of us struggle to find things to talk to about or have conversations without feeling awkward.
If that describes you—or you simply want to sharpen your conversational skills— this guide will help you start making small talk like an old pro.
Why small talk is essential
Don’t be fooled—small talk has major ramifications, including for business. Psychology says so!
“Research suggests small talk is an important way to learn about the personality of others, which in turn helps us to better predict how they will behave in the future,” notes Professor Daniel Sgroi of the University of Warwick.
Knowing how customers might behave? Sounds like a valuable superpower for any business owner. But that’s just the beginning.
Small talk also keeps the stakes low, disarming casual visitors or callers before acting as a springboard to launch a real conversation. Done deftly, that can segue into a sales pitch so smoothly they don’t even notice.
Small talk establishes rapport, inclining others to want to continue spending time with you. For social interactions, that’s an undeniable asset. And in professional contexts, it’s an incredible way to suss out what issues people are facing, which is valuable feedback you can use to tailor your products, services, marketing, and more.
How to make small talk
So how does one go about this small talk stuff then?
To start, keep in mind that you really just want to make people feel comfortable. Use small talk the same way you’d use a warm smile—as a means to welcome someone and put them at ease.
Your opening line doesn’t have to be anything important. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Say someone walks into an establishment you own. Offer a friendly greeting such as “Welcome to [insert the name of your business]” then ask if there’s something particular they’re looking for.
Another easy icebreaker is asking what they’re up to today (because people love to talk about themselves)! Which brings us to our next point…
1. Be curious.
Conveying a sense of genuine curiosity is the key to asking good ice-breaking questions. To appear sincere, you should try to actually feel sincere inside!
When others are curious about us, it makes us feel valued. Asking open-ended questions is a surefire way to open the door for them to share.
So cultivate a real curiosity about others, so you can make their day brighter and hopefully help them out in some way. After all, there’s more to relationships that what people give you, and there’s more business than making money. Helping others can give us a stronger sense of meaning and satisfaction.
Even if a customer doesn’t intend to buy something that day, for example, you can make a connection—and an impression they’ll remember.
2. Be authentic and honest.
Authenticity counts. Especially in this day and age when everybody feels over-marketed to, giving an honest (yet polite and professional) response goes a long way.
Remember, insincerity isn’t hard to pick up. From our vocal tone to microexpressions, forced gestures, and other non-verbal clues, we always give ourselves away when we try to be anything less than genuine.
If you don’t already have a caring mindset, do your best to develop one. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Empathize with what brought them to where they are—and what’s going on with them in the moment.
3. Focus on them, not yourself.
The goal of a conversation is to get the other person talking about themselves, at least initially. It’s fine to share about yourself, but you don’t want to take over the conversation that’s supposed to be about them, their perspective, or their needs.
Yes, small talk is a two-way street, but try to limit your speech to asking or answering questions in the beginning. Especially in a business setting, give potential customers or clients your full undivided attention. Show overt interest as you listen—and whatever you do, put away your phone so you can stay focused!
The same goes for your customer-facing staff. Train them to provide exceptional customer experiences.
4. Crack a joke.
Like an egg, you’ve got to be careful when cracking a joke. It’s all too easy to say the wrong thing these days, but that doesn’t mean you have to walk on eggshells.
Keep in mind that jokes don’t have to be especially clever. People are primed to laugh—it helps us feel safe and comfortable—and for many of us, it’s just the attempt that matters. In fact, a “bad” joke can go farther than a “good” one in establishing a connection.
The important thing is to be respectful. If you’re making a joke at anyone’s expense, it should be your own. But better yet, avoid mean-spiritedness altogether; be playful, goofy, silly, absurd.
The best way to decide what’s appropriate or not is to understand your audience. In a professional setting, that’s often your clients or customers. Maybe you created a customer avatar when writing your business plan, but if not, go for it now. Get to know what type of people want your products and services, so you can tailor your humor accordingly.
5. Look for common interests.
Common ground makes small talk so much easier! But you can’t just hand people a list of the things you like or don’t like. Well, you could, but it probably wouldn’t help anyone feel less awkward.
Instead, why not put up some photos or knick-knacks as a way to share some insights into your hobbies and interests? Or if there’s an event or show in town you’re interested in yourself, casually bring it up to see if the person wants to chat about it.
When you find common ground, small talk can quickly turn into full-blown conversations. Just make sure you don’t lose track of time. There’s still work to be done!
Big things start small.
From long-term partners and best friends to loyal customers who stay with businesses their whole lives, all relationships start somewhere… and it’s usually with a tiny bit of chitchat or banter.
From these small starting points, life-changing events can be set in motion. So never underestimate the power of small talk for your business. People who know how to deftly navigate conversations have a powerful tool to succeed in virtually any situation. And business owners who know how to leverage small talk can land new customers and solidify their relations with existing ones.
Of course, not everyone wants to be a master conversationalist—and many people, including countless business owners, simply don’t have the time for small talk.
That’s where customer communication experts like the ones at Ruby can help.
Our virtual receptionists are pros at making people who reach out to your business feel comfortable, listened to, and taken care of. We specialize in making meaningful moments and brightening people’s moods no matter who they are or why they’re contacting you.
Ready to see Ruby in action? Check out how real receptionists handle conversations in our online demo.