Let’s Talk Small

Let’s Talk Small

Thanks for coming back to the latest installment on Leadership Lexicon. See earlier posts on Relationships, Responsibility, and being Transparent, Approachable, and Socially Adept.  Today I want to address the importance of a leader’s ability to engage in small talk. In Sustained Leadership WBS I define it in this way:

WBS Dictionary: “Small Talk” is the name given to socially required banter on trivial topics as a prelude to more substantive conversations. In a social setting it is important for a leader to master small talk to put people at ease and prevent the social event from turning out like a middle school dance with all the boys on one side of the room and all the girls on the other, or to use the example of negotiations, each side staking out opposite sides of the room. Small talk might be about the weather or local sports or current events. It is generally wise to follow the old adage about never talking about politics or religion on a first date when making small talk. In negotiations (4.2.10), small talk is commonly used prior to the negotiation sessions to make everyone comfortable and to build the relationship. When you accept that relationships are more important than transactions, small talk becomes easier because it is a means to an end—a positive relationship. Use small talk to get to know people. While the “talk” may be small, the rewards are great.


Business is always based on a relationship of some sort. We all have our favorite brands and we all go back to the same restaurants – until we don’t. And all relationships have a beginning.

Very often those relationships start with some form of small talk – casual interactions of minimal consequence where people introduce themselves and begin to learn a little about others who have entered their sphere. It might be as casual as the weather, sports, or local events. Sometimes current news events are potential topics, but a caution about those in a moment. For now, let’s explore more about the nature of small talk.


Some people are very friendly and forthcoming. They approach people readily, shake hands, make introductions, and dive into the small talk. Others are more reticent. They hold back. They are perceived as shy. And they might be. Perhaps instead, they are just introverts. They do not have the need to be the center of attention and are comfortable with the world they have allowed in around themselves.

The more gregarious person, the extrovert perhaps, is constantly expanding their world. The more the merrier is their motto and the have learned that being the life of the party and the center of attention appeals to them.

Certainly charisma can carry such a person a long way. And contrary to some schools of thought, charisma can be learned. When it becomes too strong, the person can seem to be braggadocios – a blowhard, a bore, arrogant even.

This suggests that in order to avoid these extremes you must have some substance to your small talk. Yet we just defined it as inconsequential. Yes – inconsequential, but not irrelevant or vacuous. You must still be a person of substance.


Small talk consists of the elements of substance, relevancy, and personality. To gather substance, you should be a constant reader. Start with a few news feeds. Scan the headlines. Have some familiarity with the topics of the day – what is going on in the world globally and within the worlds of those with whom you will be engaging. From the national news glean the hot topics and evolving conflicts.

For local matters, maybe it is a local hero, or a major disaster in the area. Having at least this level of familiarity would prepare you to ask such questions as, “Have you kept up on the developing news in [Name of country]?” Or, “That was a terrible accident on the interstate in that fog you had Thursday. Were you involved in that at all?” This initiates the conversation and you are asking them for their views and opinions or showing concern about their well being. These are good small talk topics.

Adding Substance

But you can’t be a headlines-only person. You should never be perceived as a mile wide and an inch deep. You have to have some substance behind the directions in which you steer a conversation. And to state the obvious – that direction should never be a focus on you. Never.

Be a constant reader. Understand the world from your own perspective. If someone mentions global trade, tariffs, ethanol, or any subject on which there might be polarization, you need to be prepared to either defend your position or change the subject. Usually the best approach is to turn the conversation to something you know. Not to be a know-it-all, but to contribute in a positive direction. Avoid being confrontational, but have facts at your fingertips. This shows you are a person of substance and not just a “stuffed shirt.” You want the conversation to be fairly light and yet show you as a person who reads more than just headlines.

Do Your Homework

Maintain relevancy by doing your homework. In what industry are the people to whom you are talking? If this is a business setting you should already know this. What are their hobbies? In what charities do they contribute their time, talent, or treasure? Do they have a favorite novelist or business writer? Conversely, do they particularly dislike certain people or topics? You do not want to inadvertently step into a quagmire.

Be sensitive to others. You do not want to make a disparaging reference to someone, only to learn that the listener has a personal sensitivity with that person or topic. Thus a great rule to follow is – positive talk only. No insults, no jokes, no show of prejudice in any way. Your normal talk should be uplifting in any case, so practicing positive affirmations helps you on several levels. .

Show Your Personality

There are other topics that present unique dangers, so stay attuned to them and do not initiate or get drawn into a debate on hot-button issues. Like a first date, stay away from almost every discussion on religion or politics. Or sex. Our list of forbidden topics has grown immensely in recent times and sometimes it is difficult to keep your list current. It can be a minefield.

If in doubt – stay away from the topic. It is too easy to alienate someone over their own sensitivities and since small talk is designed to initiate a relationship, lobbing a bomb into that minefield simply cannot yield good results. Stay in safe territory.

Using Tweets as  Guide

Some complain that tweets are too short to convey any substance, but people who engage on that platform seem to have no trouble with it. It can help in small talk to think of your comment as a tweet or series of tweets. Keep them short and to the point. Short, easily digestible bites.

Active Listening

Often you might not have an opinion on a subject. It might be from lack of factual information or simply a lack of interest. That’s OK. It is fine to express a lack of knowledge and invite the other person to enlighten you.

This is the time to practice active listening; nod your head in understanding (not necessarily agreement) and rephrase their contribution in your own words. Use both words and body language that says, “Yes, go on. Tell me more.”

Another approach is to parrot the views of others, but only do this with known authorities or on topics you truly understand. One of my favorite approaches is to have a collection of quotes at my fingertips. With enough memory of quotes, it is easy to pull a relevant authority into the conversation.

Get a good book on quotes and work on remembering short pithy, relevant ones. And as with all small talk, be very careful of sensitive topics. Using an historical quote out of context, or one that in today’s society is considered offensive can reflect badly on you.


A final note about small talk before a significant business event. Before negotiations it is common to engage in small talk. Typically each member of the teams pairs up with their counterpart over coffee or room set-up. Some feel that this is an ideal time to probe on the other side’s perspective or approach to the negotiations.

Often the negotiation lead has difficulty in reigning in their own people. Getting them alone and seeing what inside information you can gather is often viewed as a necessary part of the process. Others find this an unethical business practice. You will need to be the judge of this, but be forewarned. Small talk should never bleed into the substance of the business event. Do not revel your negotiation strategies or positions. Some people can’t help themselves. They think that by revealing business confidences they will gain a friend and an advantage.

Similarly, some people use that time to provide completely misleading information or what is often call disinformation. It is safer in business to keep the small talk on simpler less relevant topics (like sports or the weather) and leave the actual business discussion for the formal meeting. You must assess your own ethics in this regard. Just keep your eyes and ears open and your guard up.

You CAN Learn Small Talk

Anyone can learn to engage in small talk successfully. I strongly endorse Toastmasters for anyone who wants to improve their public speaking in any style or format. The talk may be small, but the importance and impact is huge when it is done right.

This material is derived from the book Sustained Leadership WBS and is found in section Small Talk. Buy the book here.

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With an extensive career in government contracting, Tom has found many examples, both good and bad, of leadership. These posts are based on his latest book, Sustained Leadership WBS, published by Morgan James. Tom is available to speak to your team on the importance of developing sustained leaders.


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