Knowing how to make small talk is not a small deal, it turns out. Scott Hoover, associate professor of finance at Washington and Lee University explains it this way in How To Get A Job On Wall Street.
“In trying to generate business, the deal pitch is obviously critical. What is not so obvious is that simple, seemingly innocuous conversation with potential clients can be just as important,” writes Hoover. “Companies want to hire people who can think on their feet.”
Stringing together meaningless words, usually for the purpose of passing time, may not seem like much of a skill to have. But teaching the art of small talk is a main focus at Year Up, one of few successful training programs that aids recent high school grads find tech jobs.
Small talk is where first impressions are made after all. Before getting to the meat of business, don’t we exchange words more casual than the official topic at hand? While you may have the opportunity in a formal capacity to prove your competence, it’s in small talk where someone learns to like you. And as we all know, being liked matters, in business and in life.
But for many millennials and Gen Z who put their best face on Facebook and flock to social media as their leading means of communication, small talk continues to be a malnourished skill – and a skill underdeveloped still in poorer families, where parents are often too preoccupied to spend time conversing with their kids, a study shows.
I recently wrote an article trying to help parents with young children teach the art of conversation early on. It was a topic that became top of mind after speaking with an undergraduate admissions interviewer who told me that many of the nation’s top students with stellar GPAs and SAT scores could not explain why a certain book was their favorite or why they felt passionate about an activity.
So how can an aspiring young entrepreneur or anyone with professional goals become better at small talk and the art of conversation in general? Here are four tips.
- Put your phone down. There’s no do-not-disturb sign like holding an iPhone to your face. The only way to get better at small talk is to practice. So the next time you’re standing in front of a cashier or waiting in line, try passing those minutes talking with a stranger instead. If detaching from your phone seems like an imperceivable task, then make a phone call in lieu of a text message.
- Stop thinking about yourself. Take the focus off of yourself the next time you make small talk. Don’t worry so much about how you’re being perceived. Instead, pay attention to what the other person is saying. You’ll make better small talk this way.
- Make it meaningful. While you don’t have to discuss what your convictions are life after death, beef up your conversations just a little bit. When someone asks how your day was, don’t just answer with curt one-word answers. Try adding little details like, “My day was great. I actually found time to get in a jog today.” In doing so, you’ll likely elicit a more peppered response from the other party as well. Who knows where the conversation might lead.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. Even when conducting my own podcasts, I have to remind myself that silences aren’t as long as I think. It’s perfectly okay to let some time pass in between the exchange of words. Conversations usually begin to feel awkward when you force the speed of verbal exchange. Let the discourse happen naturally.