How to make small talk even if it scares you

Good luck, everyone!
Good luck, everyone!
Image: REUTERS/Stringer
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Most job seekers understand that writing resumes and cover letters, answering interview questions, and networking are skills worth developing. As the leader of a college career center, I think it’s time to add making good small talk to the list.

As students, and the rest of us, spend more time focused on the instant gratification of our devices, the long game of small talk is becoming something of a lost art.

But it is still important. Today’s careers continue to evolve or disappear at an accelerated pace. The ability to converse effectively—especially in informal situations—is now a crucial competitive advantage.

Like most skills, mastering small talk takes work. Here are a handful of starting principles to guide you.

There’s a person attached to every opportunity

In a job interview it’s clear that in order to get the job, you need to impress the interviewer. But the same is also true of every opportunity, you might just not know it yet. By making small talk, you can learn what opportunities that people who you meet might give you access to, and you can gain that access by building trust through—you guessed it—small talk. That doesn’t mean you should treat the conversation like a transaction. The goal is not to get something from the person; it’s to make a positive impression that could eventually lead to an opportunity.

Be curious

To make good, effective small talk, you need to be generally curious. With strangers, it may take 60 to 90 seconds of questioning to find a common interest to discuss. It helps to have a topic handy that you’re interested in discussing yourself. For example, because my wife and I have three kids, I typically ask someone roughly my age if they have kids. A favorite sport or sports team tends to be a favored topic, as are hobbies, pets, and food.

It’s about more than spoken words

In approaching someone, it’s important to scan for nonverbal cues. If the person who you’re speaking to doesn’t turn toward you with his or her entire body, he or she is not looking for a conversation right now, and you should politely break things off and move on. If you’re already talking to someone and they start breaking eye contact or begin looking over your shoulder frequently, it’s time to end the conversation. Being tactful in how long you speak with someone indicates a level of emotional intelligence that people appreciate in general. It also demonstrates a level of soft skills that employers find valuable in new hires.

Don’t go in empty-handed

Just like you would arm yourself with information going into a job interview, when you’ve got an opportunity for small talk coming up—a young professionals mixer, a career fair, a party of any kind—do a little research into who you can expect to meet at the event. Before a career fair, for example, Google the reps from companies for whom you’d like to work and see if their social media presence indicates that you have interests in common. Keep those interests in mind. You still want to have an organic conversation, but you can gently steer the conversation in that direction and bolster your confidence by knowing that the person will have a positive response.

It’s about building trust

Small talk is about building a friendly rapport with someone that will eventually lead to mutual trust. Good small talk quickly gets a person comfortable with you. By getting to know each other, you and your conversation partner begin to build trust. Trust is what unlocks the door to opportunity.

Sure, you might have to spend some time talking about the weather, but once you find common ground, you’ll be on your way to building a relationship. It always helps to remember that there’s vulnerability and awkwardness on both sides—you’re not the only one opening up to a stranger.

Matthew Randall is the associate dean of the Edward and Lynn Breen Center for Graduate Success at Lebanon Valley College.