When Indra Nooyi, senior vice president of strategic planning for PepsiCo Inc., moved to the U.S. from Madras, India, in the late 1970s, she heard a good deal about the bottom of the ninth, dingers, fastballs, and seeing-eye singles. Nooyi knew nothing about corporate-America-style small talk, but figured baseball might be the place to start.

She bought a book on the New York Yankees and practically committed its contents to memory. Although she would have preferred a night at the ballet to discussing batting averages, she mastered players' names, their hobbies, and, of course, their batting averages.

"So when clients gave me that baseball stuff, I could give it back to them," Nooyi recalls. Baseball is one of hundreds of ways to engage in the art of small talk -- an area that flummoxes many executives.

Susan RoAne, author of What Do I Say Next? (1997, Warner Books), says eight out of 10 adults describe themselves as shy and uncomfortable making small talk. This is startling, considering that small talk may be the biggest talk we do. Why? Because small talk -- also known as getting-to-know-you talk -- is what develops and nurtures the relationships necessary for success.

In the early 1990s, Thomas Harrell, professor emeritus of applied psychology at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, studied a group of M.B.A.s a decade after graduation. His goal was to identify the traits of those who were most successful. He discovered grade-point average had no bearing on success, but "verbal fluency" did. The most successful graduates were those who could confidently make conversation with anyone: secretaries, colleagues, investors, strangers, bosses, vendors. or customers.