Mastering Small Talk: Conversations That Get You Noticed and Rewarded!

Close your eyes for a minute and picture being at a networking event, and the manager of the school you’ve been dying to work at walks up to you and strikes up a conversation.  The first think you do after saying hello is effortlessly introduce yourself with your well-crafted and powerfully supported elevator pitch but, with that finished, what do you do now? Your mind goes blank, and you see the manager starting to shift her body away from you.  You’re losing her and, with each passing second, your opportunity at a future interview starts to disappear. In that moment, how could you have saved the conversation?

The answer is simple – with a little small talk. However, becoming a master of small talk is anything but simple, especially when so many of us see it as such a pointless form of communication.  Yet, the reality is that small talk is anything but pointless; we must stop seeing it as wasted time and start seeing it as the necessary means to not only flex our communication muscle, but to also show off our ability to be engaging, relevant, informative, and confident.

In this blog, we will look at 3 key areas that will help you transition from a novice chatter to a small talk savant.

  1. WHY? Looking at the top desired soft skills in the Canadian workplace.
  2. WHAT? The purpose and rules of small talk.
  3. QUESTIONS? Using the right Qs to maximize the conversation.
list of top 10 most in demand skills
image source:

Answering the WHY:

As you look at the infographic, the answer to WHY becomes quickly apparent. Those who wish to become successful in their careers, especially those in service-focused careers with dreams of entering senior management, need to be excellent communicators. Dazzling your audience with your communication skills start from that very first minute of small talk, which cannot and should not be wasted in any networking event.

Answering the WHAT:

It’s easy to dismiss small talk as idle chit-chat and claim to only be interested in “real” conversation; however, how do you get to the point of deeper conversations unless you begin on the lowest rung of the conversation ladder? Small talk is the portal through which every person you will ever meet will enter your life. Think about how huge that is for a second. You simply never know when someone you meet will send your life in a completely new and exciting direction.

Here are the 7 rules for all good small talk conversations:

  1. For deeper conversations, utilize the FORD method of small talk, by focusing on FAMILY, OCCUPATION, RECREATION, and DREAMS (goals).
  2. Follow the simple ARE method of ANCHORING the topic in a mutually shared reality, REVEALING something about yourself to build trust, and ENCOURAGING the other to expand the conversation by asking relevant follow-up questions.
  3. Actively listen and interject with suitable verbal and non verbal cues.
  4. Don’t be an oxygen vampire – share the air!
  5. Maintain inviting, engaging and open body language.
  6. Read the room – if a person’s body language starts to show disinterest, take that as your signal to end the conversation.
  7. Integrate a little humour.

Integrating the right QUESTIONS:

For the FORD and ARE methods to work properly, the small talk savant must become a master at asking good questions, but WHAT EXACTLY makes a question GOOD?  All good questions have 4 important qualities:

  1. Purposeful: they should invite participation, direct discovery, or challenge the topic.
  2. Parameters: though they should be open-ended, questions with a guided direction serve small talk well.
  3. Critical thinking: questions that promote critical engagement leave a lasting impression.
  4. Application: good questions empower your small talk partner(s) to explore, discover, organize, postulate and conclude.

In conclusion, as more and more of our modes of communication are moving farther and farther away from that which is happening in real time, it is important to capitalize on opportunities to practice and develop our small talk skills. So push yourself out of your comfort zone and use every interaction as great training ground for becoming a small talk savant and, before you know it, you will watch as this invaluable skill elevates all your social and professional relationships from the expected to the EXTRAORDINARY.

Katina Deichsel is a Business Communication Coach and Curriculum Designer who has been working in the exciting world of English Language Instruction for the past 15 years. Currently working as a Sessional Lecturer at George Brown College and a Curriculum Design Consultant for ACCES Employment and COSTI, Katina is passionate about creating curricula that prepare her clients to be successful in all their personal, academic, and professional endeavors, in Canada and abroad!


3 thoughts on “Mastering Small Talk: Conversations That Get You Noticed and Rewarded!”

  1. Hi Katina,

    Thank you for this amazing article.

    I wonder if you could share a few sample conversation transcripts for such occasions. It would be wonderful to have access to authentic examples of networking conversations samples.

    1. Hi Sherry,
      Thank you for your comment. Please review a sample dialogue that I’ve used in a Financial Services OSLT program. This will demonstrate the FORD method in action.

       Review the sample dialogue below between a Financial CSR and a client:
      CSR Good morning. How are you today?
      Client Great thanks.
      CSR I have to warn you, I’m in a great mood. I just got off the phone with my brother and found out he’s coming to visit for the summer. Do you have any special summer plans with your family?
      Client Oh, actually yes, my sister’s flying in from England.
      CSR Hopefully she brings you back some delicious English delicacies. My brother also lives abroad and he’s always bringing me back hot sauce from his travels. I guess that’s the benefit of being an ESL teacher, you get to travel all over the world while making money. What field of work at you in?
      Client Well I’m a graphic designer.
      CSR Oh, I’m so impressed. I may be good with money, but I’m not the best with new software programs. What do you like most about your profession?
      Client It allows me to be creative while using the latest technology.
      CSR Ok, you’ve inspired me to learn a new software program during my vacation. Perhaps prezi or movie maker to help with my financial presentations. Aside from what, what do you like to do in your free time?
      Client I’m a big fan of cooking.
      CSR Oh, so you’re obviously very creative. I’m a big fan of spending time in the kitchen, creating new dishes to share with family and friends. Have you ever thought about becoming a professional cook and designing your own website?
      Client Actually, it’s a nice idea, but my goal right now is to buy a home.
      CSR Fantastic. I can certainly help you develop a plan to achieve that goal. Let’s get started! Imagine your dream home – what does it look like?

      1. Thank you Katina,

        This looks great.

        If only all conversations could move so smoothly.

        Thank you for the prompt sample conversation.

        Hope you are enjoying summer as well.


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