Small Talk, Big Network: Why you should trade the phone for a face to face

By Deanna Cioppa
The Brief
No one should be too cool for small talk. In fact, it might be the key to building your network.

We’re all guilty of it. We’re in an unfamiliar setting, with people we’ve just met or know in passing. To mask any social discomfort or awkwardness, we whip out our smart phones, to check work emails or train schedules or the average velocity of a hummingbird’s wings, anything to keep from making eye contact that might lead to a conversation.

Though the device spares us the horror of human interaction with for a moment, it really is doing us a disservice, according to What To Talk About On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss’s Boss. The book by Rob Baedeker a comedy writer and consultant, and Chris Colin, a journalist, is a humorous how-to guide to small talk. It’s target audience: technology-addicted mutes like us who need to learn to connect with each other again.

Cut through the funny, and the two authors do make an important point. Small talk has gotten a bad rap in recent years. But though chitchat might not be the shortest line to the solving of international crises, it’s critical to forming new connections and building up relationship capital. And that in turn can help solve international crises—or at least next week’s bizdev problem. Even back in Dale Carnegie’s day, small talk was recognized as the most effective way to charm guarded people. It loosens them up and may just get them to like you. Bingo! 

 If it’s done right, that is. The key, say the authors of a recent Fast Company article, is to avoid asking rote questions that only inspire “closed” answers. Instead, ask questions that prompt storytelling, for example, questions about their career path and story. At the risk of sounding a bit sinister, the goal is to get the other guy out of their own head, to “destabilize” them with unusual queries. Be curious and stay nimble. Baedeker and Colin classify conversationalists as either “Steam Rollers” or “Pancakes,” each with its own obvious implications. The trick, though, is to become fluent in both styles. Be a flexible conversationalist, and you increase the chances the other person not only remembers you, but also becomes one more connection in your network.

The Takeaway: At your next conference or just on your next elevator ride, keep the phone pocketed and engage the person next to you with something more than a comment about the weather.

Deanna Cioppa is a freelance writer who has written for AARP, ESPN The Magazine and Fodor’s. She is a frequent contributor to this blog.
RelSci is a technology solutions company that helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

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