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Demystifying Small Talk, Pt.1

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

Small talk is essential to business in general, to meetings in specific, and to meeting openings most especially. Still, almost no one has a proper account of what small talk is, how it works, why it works, and how to improve at it. We're going to take a run at this in the next few posts.

Breaking In & Out of Small Talk

In general, the little challenge our clients have is getting small talk going; the big challenge they tend to have is not knowing how to transition out of it gracefully. The small talk in the opening of a meeting will eventually have to give way to the regular business conversation ("big talk"?) if a meeting is going to be of substance. But therein lies an amazing social dynamic. Dance-like, this moment in discourse takes timing, social intelligence, self-knowledge, and a feel of the overall rhythm and flow of the discourse. If you think I'm overstating it, just watch the transition from small talk in the next three meetings you're in. Some folks have rhythm, some have two left feet.

In our role play studies (over 1000 meetings from over 20 organizations) of openings and closings we have seen three mechanisms that work for transitioning from small talk into the meat of a meeting.

  1. The double-dutch jump rope

  2. The escalating 'hmmm'

  3. The floating hand

The Double-Dutch Jump Rope

Indulge a metaphor for a moment. When a prospect, a client, a boss, and employee, anyone with a voice in the conversation is on a small-talk roll it's like two jump ropes whirring around in opposite directions - Double Dutch!

To the uninitiated stepping into the empty space between the ropes looks like slipping through the blades of a fan. To the Double Dutch athlete it's nothing. You already know where the metaphor is going...

Small talk has a natural rhythm. Like the orbit of a rope has to make a full rotation, and gives regular windows for entry, there are breaths, pauses for emphasis, verbal 'punctuation' in small talk which give you a chance to participate, join in, redirect, or participate in any other way you like.

Small talk has a natural rhythm. Like a jump rope makes a full rotation, and gives regular windows for entry, there are breaths, pauses for emphasis, verbal 'punctuation' in small talk which give you a chance to join in, respond, redirect or participate in any other way you like. The trick is to watch the rhythm.

In practice this looks like listening to the actual cadence of the speaker, anticipating the direction of the stories and phrases, and matching an appropriate point of entry. Take an example.

Longwinded Lonny: already 2 minutes in:

"...and that's when I realized that the weather here changes three/four times a day, haha! I mean we can have summer in the morning, spring at lunch, winter in the afternoon and autumn by dinnertime, haha! If I plan to water the garden, I'm going to have to think about when I do it, haha!..."

To the casual listener, this feels like a runaway train of small talk, but the Double Dutch rope here is giving regular points of entry. For instance, every "Haha!" is a clear moment you can step into the rhythm. You could easily step into these intersections with"

"Well count your blessings, where I am it's just winter, haha!"

"But it sounds like you love it, Lonny"

"Isn't that funny.."

"That reminds me of the coast near me..."

And from there steer to the appropriate direction. More on Double Dutch later...

The Escalating 'Hmmm'

I worked with a man who called the sound "hmmm" when made as a confirmation/affirmation of understanding "The Baptist 'Amen'" because it was so often used in his church when the congregation agreed with the teachings of the minister mid-sermon. We laughed to tears when he enacted a churchgoer fully in the embrace of a particularly good sermon.

That "hmmm" - when made in a way that says " interesting" or "good point" or "yes" - shows up in every language and every culture I've been in. It certainly shows up in business meetings. And here is where the technique comes in.

When you are dealing with a run-on small talker, start using the affirmative "hmmm." Sometimes this alone is enough to encourage them to include you. With a true run-on small talker, usually not. The escalation technique is to shorten the time between each "hmmm" and increase the volume and pitch incrementally until you reach a rapid "M-M-M-M-M" this sound breaks the trance of even the most entrenched small talker. I can't say exactly why it works from an aural or psychological perspective, but to my ear it's the sound of enthusiasm or urgency and it provides you a very easy transition into a statement like "I've seen that too, Lonny..." or "You couldn't be more right..." and you're just a step from there to a standard re-direct.

The Floating Hand

This trick sounds unrealistic until you see it done or try it and realize it's much more natural than it sounds: When you are dealing with a run-on small talker, very slowly start to raise your hand as they're speaking.

The hand should be positioned as if you're 'weighing' their idea/point/story. Don't open it palm down and raise it like a flag in the schoolroom style. Raise it about 3/4 inch per second. At some point, Sir Talksalot will stop because the hand will subconsciously cue him to do so. It's uncanny (it's also funny).

You must not miss the rhythm here; you need to step in once the other person pauses, and you should use your raised hand to accompany what you say next. After all it's sitting at shoulder height floating there now. If you are confused by this description, contact us and we'll demonstrate it for you!

In our next part, we'll talk about "breaking out of small talk" by directing to the substance of a meeting.

The three techniques above work for video conferences as well as in-person. They also conform to our "Bronze Rule."

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