Look at any commuter train and you’ll see a huge crowd of people trying their hardest to avoid one another’s gaze, with their eyes firmly glued to their phones or laps to avoid having to chatter about how bad the weather is with an annoyingly talkative stranger.
Arguably us Brits weren’t too keen on small talk even before the smartphone boom, unless it was moaning about public transport of course. With the world’s conversation at our fingertips, we’ve quickly become even less likely to indulge in chit-chat; a potentially damaging development for those who must rely on the gift of the gab to find work.
Small talk is an unavoidable pursuit if you’re trying to find work as a freelancer, but it doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable chore. Embrace it – after all, being stuck in a lift with a stranger isn’t the same as trying to instigate a working relationship with a potential client.
As it’s considered impolite to begin negotiations without exchanging a few pleasantries first, it’s worth having a pop at improving the rapport-building skills – “setting talk”, as it’s known – needed to make a good first impression.
“The purpose of setting talk is to let others know that you are willing to make conversation, nothing more, nothing less”, affirm the Shyness Research Institute, “so don’t feel like your setting talk remarks have to be witty or brilliant. It’s best to keep them simple.”
With this in mind, can freelancers really expect to strike a deal without nailing these little gambits first?
“Sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”
Dale Carnegie’s best-selling self-help book “How To Make Friends and Influence People” from 1936 contains the astute advice still relevant today:
“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
It sounds like an obvious place to start, but it’s excellent practice to address the other person by their name not just in the initial moments of meeting, but also at appropriate moments in the conversation. For example: “That’s a really interesting point, Jake”.
This is an effective and popular method of simultaneously making someone feel significant and keeping their attention.
Unless they’re a close friend, folks don’t tend to ask how you are for a genuine update on your physical or mental well-being, they use the query as a formality to spark up a conversation.
A stifling response to this, which we’re all sometimes guilty of is “Not bad, you?”
A much more engaging response might be “Excellent thank you, I’ve been looking forward to meeting with you, how was your journey?” or perhaps something a little more off-kilter like “Great, I’ve just booked tickets to the new Star Wars film. Have you seen it yet?”
If you’ve managed to get some good chin-wagging out of them, it’s doubtful they’ll even remember that you didn’t immediately reciprocate their “How are you?”, let alone be offended. Of course, if you’re worried about coming across as inconsiderate, you can always acknowledge this and ask them how they’re doing once the conversation has moved on.
“What have you been up to lately?”
It’s probably the most common go-to conversation piece with someone you’ve not seen in a while, but this trope also might rear it’s bland, generic head when you’re meeting new people.
Prepare to embellish a little bit if someone asks you this – they’d almost certainly rather hear an interesting anecdote rather than a bland “not much.” If you visited somewhere fairly recently (with work or otherwise), talk about how it was and ask if the person has had a similar experience.
People love talking about themselves, and this might be a perfect opportunity for you to bring up how you were reading about a big piece of work they’ve done or something interesting you saw on their website.
Use social media (particularly LinkedIn) or an app like Charlie to make sure you’re properly briefed on the person you’re meeting. Not only will sharing your findings prove that you’re enthusiastic and organised, it’s also a good excuse to compliment someone and stroke their ego.
Words to the effect of “So, let’s get down to business” might as well be replaced with “Well, that’s enough small talk.” You wouldn’t say it when talking to a date, so don’t say it to a potential client. Keep the dialogue going until you have a way to seamlessly segue the conversation to a business orientated theme.
For example, if you’ve been discussing the weather (urgh!) then you could always ask whether it tends to affect their business. Talking about sports, films or TV etc.? Enquire as to whether they get much time to enjoy those things with their busy professional lives. Voilà! Your transition from friendly face to hot-shot salesperson is now much less jarring.
“Um, I forgot what I was going to say.”
The awkward pause is considered business kryptonite by many. Unfortunately, as you’re on the sell, you’re effectively the host, and therefore it’s kind of up to you to keep the conversation flowing.
A gap isn’t as terrible as it seems though, as it may be the case that the other person is taking a moment to process new information. Nonetheless, it’s comforting to have a go-to question prepared for if you can sense one of these moments looming.
“What have you got coming up today?” is a nice open question to ask and can be inserted into a meeting at any point without sounding desperate. Asking the person how long they’ve been in the field of work also opens up the opportunity for a wider spectrum of conversation – like what they were doing before or what they enjoy about their job.
“I’ll let you get on.”
My Dad once taught me that “I’ll let you get on” was a good way to gracefully escape a conversation (he’s since used it on me without realising several times). This works in most situations, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying you have another appointment, or that you need to go and grab some lunch.
Upon preparing for your departure it’s important to demonstrate that you’ve not been on autopilot during the conversation. Use the person’s name once more and tell them what you’ve taken away from the discussion; “It was good speaking to you Lucy, I’ll have to check out that book you were telling me about. What was it called again?”
A positive spin on the predictability of small talk is that if you can forecast which achingly cliché questions and statements are likely to come up, you can tailor your responses to work in your favour. The more practice you get, the better you’ll become at converting prattle to meaningful (ahopefully profitable) conversations.
Let us know below if you have any tried and tested formulas!
Anyway, we’ll let you get on…