Small Talk, Big Deal

Effective leaders know the value of informal communication

The art of making conversation is not usually a focus of executive communication development - presentation, negotiation and influencing skills tend to take precedence. But in business, relationships are crucial and it would be a mistake to underestimate the role of informal communication (or small talk) in building relationships. Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it can’t have a big impact.

Whether it’s before a meeting, over drinks or at a company event, executives have many opportunities to increase their sphere of influence with clients, colleagues and senior leaders. Making conversation helps to create rapport, build trust and foster long-term productive relationships. But not all executives feel comfortable talking to people they don’t know well.

So, how do you develop better conversation skills and increase your sphere of influence? Here are our top tips.


1. Show Up

When faced with the prospect of having to make conversation with people we don’t know very well, many of us will simply avoid the situation. But, as Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” At least if you’re there you have the opportunity to make a positive impression.

2. Be Yourself

Avoid pressuring yourself to be witty or fascinating - just start a conversation. Begin with common ground: the venue or event, the weather, the food... Research shows that people who are most at ease in conversation (both socially and professionally) don’t censor themselves as vigorously as the less confident.

3. Assume Rapport

One of the great fears about approaching people is that we might be rebuffed - yet it rarely happens. Assume that the conversation will go well, and that the other person will be interested in what you have to say.

4. Ask Open Questions

Questions that ask what, how, why (as opposed to ‘closed’ questions that can be answered with a yes, no or one word answer) open up a discussion and encourage response.

5. Listen

Listen to what people are saying - you can glean a lot of information about someone’s job, family or interests, which will help you to build a meaningful dialogue. 

6. Contribute

You will not build trust if you don’t share things about yourself. Stories create a connection more than facts or sales pitches.

7. Convey Openness

Freeing your arms and standing upright will make you look open. In conversation, lean towards the other person a little and maintain eye contact. Smile and nod. These “active listening” signals will show you are paying attention and will encourage conversation.

8. Use Your Voice

Use your voice to your advantage. If you are telling a story, tell it with energy and passion. Use the pitch of your voice to engage and hold the attention of your audience. If you are responding to someone, adopting the appropriate tone will show empathy.

9. Be Agreeable

Don’t challenge everything or play a game of one-upmanship. In general, most people are not looking for a debate. Some agreement facilitates easy conversation.

10. Speak Clearly

Many people underestimate the importance of good vocal delivery when speaking informally, but your average listener will turn off immediately if your delivery is dull, indistinct or too fast. In an international context, where you may be speaking to a client or colleague from a different cultural background, it is essential to speak clearly to ensure they can follow you.


To develop your voice and communication skills, please contact us on +44 (0)208 579 6662.