Diane Windingland’s Small Talk Big Results: Little Tips and Tichniques for Big Success in Business promises ‘Read in an hour, use for a lifetime!’ I think there’s some truth in that. It’s not just a book for business networking, although that’s the social context at which it’s primarily aimed; its tips and techniques are actually useful for pretty much all ‘small talk’ situations. As an academic, I could envisage using them at conferences and work-related networking events, but I could also envisage using them at the coffee hour after church and other informal social gatherings.
I wouldn’t actually say I struggle with small talk, in fact I’m fairly good at it. I used to be very shy, but as I got more involved in different hobbies and Christian events as an undergraduate I began to lose the shyness, and a year of school teaching forced me to acquire a “polish” of social self-confidence and easy small talk. Teaching is one of the most sociable jobs you can do, as you’re around people 24/7 without a moment to yourself: when you’re not teaching a class of 30 children, you’re in the staffroom or a meeting interacting with colleagues, and – contrary to the myths – the days are long as you arrive way before lessons start and leave way after. So yes, although I’m a natural introvert, I acquired instinctive small talk and a splash of social charm during that year (if you can charm grumpy teenagers, you can charm anyone!). Doing a PhD plays a bit too much into my comfort zone, in that it’s not a particularly sociable job most of the time, although I do teach undergraduates, have a shared office, and network at department events and conferences, so – again, contrary to the myths – I don’t actually get to spend all of my time by myself in the library with a large pile of books! What I’m trying to say is that, all in all, I wouldn’t see myself as a person who really needs to read a book on small talk. In fact, I bought this book to someone else for Christmas, but ended up holding on to it until I see them, and thought it looked interesting enough to give it a read since it’s very short. I was quite surprised by how useful it is! So I would recommend it to people who are naturally a bit shy or introverted but have good social skills, as well as people who feel they struggle with small talk or social situations.
A lot of the points are self evident, but I found some to be good reminders nonetheless. Others I hadn’t really realised before e.g.
-keep your hands visible (but not fiddling with anything) while chatting with someone you’ve just met;
-email the organizers prior to an event to ask some sort of relevant question so that you have an easy way in to a chat with them when you get there, and you can even ask them to point out/introduce you to other people it would be good for you to meet;
-network effectively with a friend by going off independently to meet people, then you can introduce each other to people that would be good for each other to meet and you can advertise each other to other people;
– one of the advantages of arriving early is that people won’t yet have coalesced into conversational groups (which are much harder to break into), and so you can more easily create a conversation group(s) of your own;
– when selecting people/groups in a room to go and talk with, pick groups of three or fewer or people standing alone, and pick “open” conversations where people are standing at an angle to each other rather than “closed” conversations where they are standing facing each other;
-when someone tells you their name, ask questions about it, to help you remember it, such as how they spell it or its origin;
– if you have forgotten someone’s name, introduce them to someone else whose name you know by using the name of the other person, e.g. “have you met Alison?”, and, if they haven’t met that person, then at that point they will tell them their name!
I don’t know if this is a cultural thing (I’m British, the book is – I assume – written primarily for an American audience), or the difference between social & work events I go to versus business networking, but a lot of the example dialogue sounds stilted, even rude, and a few of the tips do too. This isn’t a huge problem, as there isn’t a lot of example dialogue, and most of the tips work without it, but I wouldn’t advise applying the book to a social situation without a grain of salt. If I went to a conference and someone, who was not one of the hosts, was standing by the door welcoming people and pointing out the food and toilets (this is one of the tips for being sociable!), I would think it was pretty weird, and if I were hosting the conference I would definitely be puzzled and amused at their behaviour! And while open-ended questions (which the book advises one uses rather than closed questions) are in theory great at opening up conversation, they can be tricky to inject, and certainly some of the examples given come across as overly forward to me: I would be taken aback if someone I had just met in a work situation said “tell me about your family”! Maybe this is a British thing, though 😉 We tend to shy away from such potentially controversial topics (what if the person’s relationship has just ended? or a family member has just died? or if they have a difficult relationship with their family? or if they have no family and are alone and lonely?) and stick to safe topics when making “just met you” small talk, including, yes, the weather!
Although this book can, as advertised, be read in an hour, it’s definitely one it’s worth re-reading, as there are a lot of tips and techniques packed into a very short book, so it’s not something you can digest and remember all of in one go. It’s the kind of thing to pick up and flick through before a social event, or – if you wanted – to pick a few different ideas in it to try out each time you go to a new social event. I find socialising at church difficult for some reason, even though I’m usually fine anywhere else, maybe because I didn’t grow up going to church and always used to go alone and leave right after the service (I did say I was a shy undergrad…!), so I think I’ll try some of these tips there.
Overall, a useful book.