Next week, I’ll be delivering the UK’s first university module in navigating small talk and networking at BPP University Law School.
A university class on small talk? Do students really need to learn this, can it be taught, I hear you ask? Or perhaps you are shuddering at the idea of having small talk at all.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of small talk. I started Trigger Conversations in 2016 to create safe spaces to dive deep into meaningful conversations with strangers and skip the small talk. But when asked how to do this in real life I realised I needed a different strategy.
Experimenting with friends, strangers, even on the tube (yes, really) and at networking events, I realised that small talk was the way in and the secret formula was learning how to turn the small talk into “big talk” in a soft, creative way. The key? Not getting stuck in repetitive, exhausting and dissatisfying cycles of chit chat about the weather, what you do for work or where you live.
Small talk opens doors. It builds the essential foundational rapport, trust and safety needed to engage someone in a conversation, especially new people. It provides multiple opportunities to find out interesting nuggets about someone you can then explore in more depth. All businesses would do well to equip their staff, young and old, with better conversational techniques.
We are having good conversations less and less. Around 43 per cent of students at BPP feared they would be judged for the way they speak. Other research suggests that young people feel more comfortable communicating over digital platforms than in person. This has been compounded by a world revolving around social media, technology, and of course, remote working.
So, how do you navigate small talk? In life and conversation, I believe a great conversation is de-scripted. I’ll be teaching students how to navigate small talk by breaking conventional “how you are?” and “what do you do?” scripts creatively, asking and answering questions that open up interesting tangents to go deeper with.
Instead of answering a “how are you?” with a generic “yes, good”, respond with something that is true for you. In the past I’ve responded with “7.5 out of 10′ and ‘craving coffee”, which often makes the other person smile and become curious, leading to more questions. If you’re asked “what do you do” don’t simply tell them your job title, share a story about the projects you have been working on or what you’re interested in. In other words, give a variety of hooks into deeper conversation.
Real networking isn’t about transactional relationships, but connecting with people as fellow humans, who support each other in the journey of life and business. It’s about giving before asking; being kind and caring, adding value through what you share, making useful introductions.
It is weak ties in our network, rather than strong ties, such as friends and family, that bring in most of our opportunities. You can’t leverage a connection until you have formed it first and conversation is the vehicle for building connections. Those first moments matter. People trust people they like. People remember people they like, who make them smile, laugh and feel good and who can make a moment interesting.
The Top Skills of the Future Report by the World Economic Forum highlighted creativity, emotional intelligence and interpersonal communication skills in the top 10 essential skills for the future. We should plan ahead and teach this now at universities and at work. Beyond what a conversation might lead to, it is becoming clear since COVID-19 that real human connection is a necessity for our productivity, happiness and health.
This is a life (super)skill with the biggest cumulative impact. Because, really, doesn’t everything start with a single conversation? It is time we started engineering them for better outcomes.