Management Style: Making small talk

Dec. 21, 2004
Far from trivial, it can launch successful business relationships.

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.

So how can you improve your ability to schmooze?

RoAne, who has turned an innate gift of gab into a lucrative speaking and consulting career, suggests that executives start by reading. "It only takes one newspaper a day for an executive to arm him- or herself with a whole list of conversation starters," she says. Appropriate topics can be virtually anything: the weather, sports, movies, food, celebrities, business news, books, even political scandals, as long as you know your audience.

"What you are looking for are points of connection," explains RoAne, who raised the subject of the Traveler's Group-Citicorp merger to start conversations when she spoke recently to Chase Manhattan employees. "In order to be conversant, one must be well-informed. In order to be well-informed, one must be well-read," she says. After cultivating a list of conversation starters, RoAne suggests that executives follow three steps:

Make observations -- Comment on the news headlines, discuss traffic, point out how peculiar the weather has been, mention the new landscaping in front of the office, or talk about how your kids are wearing the same fashions you once did. "When you share your opinions and observations, other people are more inclined to do the same," RoAne says. When all else fails, try giving a compliment.

Ask questions -- Many people believe the best way to keep a conversation going is to ask questions -- and to a certain extent that's true. Asking people if they like going to the movies, what they thought about last night's baseball game, where they grew up, and how long they've been in their profession are appropriate ways to start a conversation. But the key is learning how to use questions to start conversation, not control it. Don't ask too many questions, and avoid those that sound too probing, personal, or aggressive.

Reveal something of yourself -- Although it's risky, when executives reveal something about themselves the level of conversation can become deeper. Revelations build relationships, turning contacts into associates and strangers into friends.

"Once you start sharing more with other people, they will start sharing more with you," RoAne explains.

Obviously, you don't want to air your dirty laundry or give people more information than they can handle. If your gut tells you a subject is inappropriate, it probably is.

What are appropriate topics? Your opinion on a recent movie, where you went to college, what pets you have, your favorite football team, your experiences at a new restaurant. The trick to making effective small talk is to use a balanced combination of observations, questions, and revelations.

In the end, remember small talk is anything but trivial. People do business with people they know, like, and trust. There is no better way for people to get to know you than by you talking to them. And although engaging a person you don't know in conversation may be difficult, don't give up.

The art of small talk takes practice. Although the subject of baseball was new to Nooyi, as a child she received solid preparation in the art of conversation. "My mother always wanted me to be president of India," she recalls. "She always used to say, 'If you were elected president of India and had to give an inauguration speech right now, what would you say?' When I finished, she would respond, 'Well if that were your election speech, I wouldn't vote for you.'"

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