How to Make Small Talk: A Businessman’s Guide to Talking with Strangers

Small Talk

Let’s get real.

None of us get that excited about small talk. In fact, there’s been this movement to cut it out of our conversations entirely.

But, be honest with yourself.

How comfortable would you be if a complete stranger came up to you and asked you a revealing or touchy question about your life?

If you think about it, you’d honestly think that that person was a little… off.

To make meaningful relationships with your prospects, you can’t completely cut out the small talk. It’s the most natural way to bridge the gap between total stranger and new acquaintance.

Take these two conversations:

Conversation #1:

Me: Hi there. Do you drink whiskey?

You: Um... why?

Me: I thought you looked like a whiskey drinker.

You: Oh...

*Awkward silence*

Conversation #2:

Me: Hi there, I just had to walk over here and tell you that your blazer is really sharp. Where did you get it?

You: Oh, thank you! I think this one is from Johnston & Murphy.

Me: Ah, no wonder. They have some really great blazers. Have you ever tried out their shoes?

You: I haven’t. I hear they’re pretty durable, though.

Me: Yeah, some of the best. Put on a whole get-up in that brand, and you look like you’re ready to go drinking at a nice whiskey bar.

You: I couldn’t agree more. Gotta love whiskey!

Me: Oh yeah? What brand do you like?

It’s pretty obvious that the second conversation was much more natural. The first was just invasive and weird.

In the service industry, small talk can make or break you. Now that doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck in the small talk zone forever — there are definitely relationships to be made and meaningful conversations to be had — but in order to make the natural transition into friendship, you need to learn how to start a conversation with a stranger.

So, how ‘bout that weather?

There are a lot of tips and tricks hidden in two of our most recent how-to articles. You can check those out here:

  1. The 8-Step Closing Process: How to Go From Stranger to Happy Customer
  2. The Ultimate Guide to Door Knocking for Independent Insurance Agents

To start things out, one of the easiest ways to generate engaging small talk is to show that you’re familiar.

How in the world can you be familiar with a stranger? Great question.

Be Familiar

This tip is great for when you’re door knocking. In order for this to work, you’ll have to be at least 1 door deep.

Here’s how it works:

You knock on the door.

“Hey, is Mark here?”

The man at the door stares at you with confusion and says, “Yeah… how do you know my name?”

And you say, “Well, I just had a great conversation with your neighbor, Steve, and I asked him who lived here. He told me your name and he mentioned that you love golfing.”

Hot diggity, you’re now familiar.

This technique is one of the best, because it does 4 things:

  1. It breaks the ice,
  2. Eases you into small talk,
  3. Establishes credibility, and
  4. Makes you familiar.

In two sentences, you’ve let Mark know that you’re not crazy, and that you’re a familiar guy. Mark is much more likely to let you into his home, and at the least, he’s much more open to having a conversation with you.

Long story short: Mark probably won’t slam the door in your face. And that’s a really good feeling.

Another way this can work is if you’re working from referrals.

You probably already do this, because it’s the most natural way to start the small-talk, but make sure to get one piece of information about your referral.

Ask your client one of these things:

  1. What does Mr. Referral do for a living?
  2. Do you know what Mr. Referral does for fun?
  3. Does Mr. Referral have any kids or grandkids?

This will arm you with a conversation starter that’s more impactful than “Hi, Mr. Referral, your friend Mr. Client said you might benefit from my services.”

That can still work, but not as well as, “Hi. Mr. Referral. I had a great conversation with your friend, Mr. Client, last week. He said you might benefit from my services, but he also mentioned that you love to golf. Do you belong to a country club around here?”

It takes the focus away from your role as “salesman” and redirects it to your role as “acquaintance.”

Know the Headlines

While talking about the weather can be a natural starting point, a more meaningful and interesting conversation can stem from news headlines.

Scan the front page of the newspaper, check the major news sites in the morning, check out which movies are showing in the theatre, listen to NPR as you get ready in the morning.

While this kind of conversation won’t necessarily serve as a greeting — “Hi there, my name is Mike. Did you see the previews for the movie Wonder Woman?” — it can help you during the small talk process.

In other words, this kind of topic can be a good crutch to lean on if the conversation goes dry.

Is it important to censor yourself a bit, though. Try to steer clear of debatable topics like politics and religion, because the last thing you want to do is offend your way out the door.

Draw Out Bigger Responses

Let’s say you ask the person, “What do you do for a living?”

And you’re hoping that this can start a conversation. But then it ends right when they say, “I’m a teacher.”

What do you now? They gave you virtually nothing to work with, and you could be awkward and ask a completely new, unrelated question, or you could draw out a bigger response.

We’re steering clear of awkward, so respond with a follow-up question that demands more than a simple answer. Here are some good and bad examples:

DON’T DO
Where do you work? What does your average day look like?
What grade do you teach? How did you decide you wanted to be a teacher?
Do you like it? Do you find it harder to teach now that every kid has a smartphone?
How long have you been teaching? What’s the best part about your job?

You’ll notice that the Don’t questions seem harmless, but they’re very closed-ended. When you ask, “where do you work,” you’re probably going to get a simple answer. The place. If you ask, “what grade do you teach?” You’ll get a simple answer. The grade.

But if you ask, “What does your average day look like?” you’re more likely to get an in-depth response. Now, there’s nothing wrong with asking those “don’t” questions, but if you want to get a conversation rolling, you need to have a conversation, not an interview.

If they say something that you can relate to, talk back. Tell them about your experience. If you’re asking question after question, it becomes this stale questionnaire, and that’s not how relationships work.

With that said, you certainly don’t want to be talking about yourself the whole time, but go back and forth. The best way to get people to open up is to just talk. Be personable. Ask great questions, because then, you’ll get great answers.

Rely on F.O.R.M

You didn’t have time to check out the headlines, you don’t know their name, and you have no clue what to say. The silence is creeping in, and things are starting to get really awkward.

Don’t panic. Just remember F.O.R.M.

This is an acronym for:

  1. Family
  2. Occupation
  3. Recreation
  4. Money

These are all great small-talk starters, and people love to talk about themselves, so these are great topics to break the ice.

Family: Do they have any kids? Any grandkids? How old are they? Do they play any sports? Where do they live? All the sudden you’re saying, “Oh my gosh, I used to live there. My brother is the same age. I’ve always wanted to try karate!” Whatever the case may be, this is an easy way to get people talking.

Occupation: What do they do for a living? Is that what they’ve always done? I’ve never heard of that — what does your average day look like? And then it transitions into, “Wow, you must need a break! What an interesting job. What kind of schooling do you need to be in that kind of career?” And now you’re talking.

Recreation: When you’re not working, what do you do for fun? What’s your favorite restaurant around here? Are you into any television shows? And then you’re saying, “I’ve always wanted to do that! I’ve never been there! My wife and I started watching that last month.” You’re talking.

Money: You’re trying to find out how they like to spend their money. What’s your favorite vacation spot? What do you usually do on the weekends? Do you have any hobbies? This one is similar to recreation, but it’s also a bit different. Then you’re saying, “I’d love to go there. Tell me more about that. How did you get into that?” Boom, done. You’re talking.

Move in with a Compliment

A great conversation starter can begin with an appropriate compliment. It cannot be about any part of their body, because that’s just creepy.

However, compliment their clothing, an accessory, their car, their home, the painting on their wall, their glasses — anything will work.

You can see pretty quickly why complimenting their body is weird.

Here’s an example: “Your eyes are breathtaking.”

Awkward.

“You have the best legs.”

Slightly more awkward.

“You have a great figure.”

Really awkward.

Even if it seems harmless, complimenting a stranger’s appearance is generally weird. So just don’t do it. Maybe on the second or third meeting, but even then, keep it simple, and keep it appropriate.

All that said, a good compliment can start a conversation on a very positive note, but again, be careful. If you transition straight from a compliment into your sales pitch, you will not seem genuine at all.

Use Your Surroundings

This is where the weather lives, but we all know it works.

Some examples:

  • It’s been a cold winter, don’t you think?
  • This neighborhood is really beautiful. Did you notice the ducks in the pond?
  • The flowers in your front yard are so interesting! Did you plan that out yourself?

Using your surroundings as a starting part is an easy way to engage the other person. If you’re door knocking, talking about the neighborhood or something outside can also draw the other person out of their home. You know, so they actually talk to you face-to-face instead of behind their screen door.

Don’t Fear Silence

It’s better to let there be a moment (or three) of silence than to try to fill up the space with forced questions and strange remarks. It can seem like a moment of silence lasts forever, but it really doesn’t. Sometimes, the other person just needs a second to think about what to say.

Also, if you stay silent, the other person will feel pulled to fill that space. You want to get your prospect or client talking so that they’ll open up to you.

Ask for Advice

People want to feel needed.

I want to feel needed. You want to feel needed. Your prospect wants to feel needed.

We’re humans. So when you ask about the flowers in their yard, ask for some advice.

“The flowers in your front yard are beautiful! How do you keep them looking so vibrant?”

“Wow, you’ve been married for 40 years? What’s the secret?”

“10 grandkids?! How do you keep track of them all?”

It’s a natural way to get your prospect talking, and the same part of brain that lights up when we experience pleasure is the same part of the brain that lights up when we talk about ourselves. So give them something to talk about. (And learn a thing or two!)

20 Seconds or Less

A lot of studies have been done, a lot of how-to videos have been made, and a lot of books have been written about mastering the art of small talk.

There’s a lot to sift through, but one of the most interesting things I’ve come across comes from Mark Goulston, the author of Just Listen.

He explains that after about 20 seconds, the person we’re talking to starts to become bored1. That’s about 3 or 4 sentences.

Once you get to the 30 or 40 second mark, the other person will start throwing out disengaged signals. Their body language will say, “I just want to get away from you.” They’ll give you one-word replies. They’ll turn their body away from you.

So, minimize what you’re saying. Get the other person to talk. Help them open up.

And if you start blabbering and your conversation turns into a “I just want to get this off my chest” conversation, stop yourself.

If you notice that the other person’s neck and shoulders are relaxed, you’ll know that they’re engaged, and they feel like they’re in a safe conversation.

Record Yourself

Small talk is a learned skill, so it’s worthwhile to practice it.

Record yourself and play it back to find your weaknesses.

You might realize that you talk way too much. You might realize that you have a problem with cutting people off. You might realize that you have this need to fill in silence with random questions that feel awkward and forced.

You may not realize these things in the moment, but when you play back those interactions, they’ll be clear as day.

When In Doubt, Look Around

You can find something to talk about wherever you are.

They have a John Deere blanket on their couch? You’re gonna talk about John Deere tractors.

They have pictures of the grandkids on the wall? You’re gonna talk about them.

They have a Cardinals sticker on their fridge? You’re gonna talk about the Cardinals.

Use whatever you can to get a conversation rolling.

Remember: If you can just get the conversation started, you’re halfway there.

 

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