Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Book Excerpt: Chapter 5: Lose All Fear of Face-to-Face Encounters

When Jack eats out alone, he sits at the bar instead of at a table because it’s much more conducive to striking up a conversation. He even finds that it helps to be friendly with the bartender, which allows people nearby to see that he is a friendly guy. Here’s a recent experience he had:

I was at a barbecue restaurant and I sat next to a guy at the bar but I did not end up talking with him because I missed the opportunity in the first two seconds. I realized afterward that as I sit down, saying just about anything can be the icebreaker, like a simple joke about being addicted to barbecue or how good it feels to sit down after working 97 hours. It’s like sticking a wedge in the door so it won’t close and it sets the stage for a possible conversation. Even just acknowledging the other person and saying “How ya doin?” as you sit down can open the window for a conversation.

But if you sit down in silence and miss that tiny window of opportunity, the whole thing seems to get 50 times harder because then you have to break a pre-existing silence with some kind of “opening line” and that triggers a whole "conversation" in my head instead of with this other person in the world.

That is not to say that the ice cannot be broken later in a potential encounter, but I think, with some of these mechanisms in place, it just seems much harder and a waste of that “window.” So, I try to keep in mind that there is a window that may only last two seconds into which is it is very easy to put down a tiny, simple placeholder to let the other person know that this could become an encounter; then making it an encounter becomes much easier as the time goes on because that marker was there right from the first moment.

What is small talk?

Most shy people hate small talk, claim to be horrible at it – “shy away from it.”

But what exactly is small talk?

Small talk is the starting point of all relationships. Think of it as a dance you do with someone new to find common ground, a way to ease into a conversation. Through small talk you decide whether “big talk” is appropriate.

When you look around a room and see people chatting, you might assume that small talk comes naturally to most people, but that is not the case. In fact, it’s not a talent at all but rather an acquired skill.

It’s like kindling. Hopefully, enough branches will burn hot enough to ignite the logs of real conversation, which can burn for much longer.

Dr. Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute, says the tag “small talk” connotes that such conversation is trivial and unimportant. On the contrary, small talk is the basis for beginning relationships. It’s where we start with almost everyone we meet. So if you can’t, or won’t, do it, think of all the connections and relationships you’ll miss out on.

Technology has revolutionized the way we communicate – for better and for worse. David Rose, a Cambridge, Mass.-based expert on computer interfaces, likes to point out that 20 years ago, an office worker had only two types of communication technology: a phone, which required an instant answer, and postal mail, which took days. "Now we have dozens of possibilities between those poles," Rose says. And most of those happen in isolation -- email, instant messaging, even the phone. As a result, we are losing both the skill and the desire to make small talk.
In today’s high-tech society, many people are losing the art of day-to-day conversation. It’s a skill, and if we don’t practice it and keep it in shape, we will forget how to do it and avoid putting ourselves in situations where that atrophied skill will be required.

How to Create Your 10-word Blurb

Brenda sometimes finds it hard to answer the simple question, "What do you do?" in a short, concise and interesting way. Sometimes she rambles on or is afraid she sounds uninteresting. If she gives a pat answer, she fears she’ll sound like a robot. She wants her “elevator speech” to be perfect, to convey everything there is to know about her in 2 sentences so the other person “gets it.”

That’s a lot of pressure for one sentence.

So many of us get so tongue-tied when we have to talk about ourselves or our work, even though so many conversations in our culture start with the question, “What do you do?”

It seems so simple but, believe it or not, this is often one of the most difficult questions to answer. It becomes even more challenging when what you do is unique, specialized or new, or when you do a lot of different things.

Before trying to answer, you have to understand the purpose of the question. When someone asks, “What do you do?” their goal isn’t necessarily to find out what you do. They do want to know, but more than anything, they want to get a conversation going.

What you say depends on whom you’re talking to. Is it a stranger? Someone you haven’t seen in a long time but who knows something about you? Someone from a past work experience? Someone from your personal life?

If it's a colleague familiar with your industry jargon, using that jargon shows you know your stuff. If it's a neighbor, your jargon may be intimidating. All of these variables need to be taken into consideration before you answer the question.

Most people won’t hear the first thing you say anyway. Remember, there’s a lot going on and they will probably only grasp a tiny bit of your communication, maybe one or two words. But don’t worry. It won’t be your only chance to answer the question so you don’t have to say it perfectly. Your challenge is to say something that will be easy for them to grasp under the circumstances. To avoid an awkward exchange, it helps to have something ready. That’s where your 10-word blurb comes in handy.

Don’t ever answer with a label, unless you are trying to stop the conversation. For example, don’t say, “I’m a designer” or “I’m a copywriter” or “I’m a lawyer.” Although it’s short and sweet, it is actually the worst thing you can say. Why?

Because labels leave too much room for interpretation. They mean different things to different people. If you say you’re a “developer” and you mean you’re a software developer but the person you’re talking to thinks of a real estate developer, you’ve already got a miscommunication.

Or they may hear your label -- “lawyer” -- and decide right then and there that they don’t need a “lawyer” or don’t like “lawyers” or aren’t interested in “lawyers.”

Also, the label you use is often industry jargon that you understand but may not be clear to your listener. For example, few people actually know what a copywriter is or does. Plus, the word “copywriter” is often confused with “copyright,” and people may assume a connection to “copyright law.” Another miscommunication.

So instead of labeling yourself, create a blurb that literally says what you do and who you do it for. Here’s an example for the copywriter:
I write direct mail marketing materials for the healthcare and financial industries.

See how that simple sentence includes what you do and who you do it for? Notice also that it uses verbs and adjectives instead of nouns to paint a picture of what the writer writes and for whom. Because of that, the listener could pick any of the words in that sentence and say, “Tell me more about that.”

Don’t sound like a robot
Once you’ve done the preparation and practiced a bit with variations on your 10-word blurb, you’re ready to use them. But be careful. There’s nothing worse than sounding like you’re reciting lines you’ve memorized, as if you can’t remember what you do.

Now that you know what to say, your challenge is to find a way to say it that is spontaneous, as if it’s coming directly from you in the present moment (which it is) and as if it’s the first time you’ve said it. These techniques will help:

· Look directly into the person’s eyes when you say it. That way, even if you’ve said it before, this is the first time you’re saying it to this person and looking at them reminds you of this.
· Let yourself be imperfect. That’s what conversation is. And if you see they are not understanding, stop and try again.

“I don’t think you have to be talkative to converse, or even to have a quick mind. Pauses in conversation do no harm… What matters is whether you are willing to think for yourself, and to say what you think… What matters most is courage.”
Theodore Zeldin, author of Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives

Be the first one to ask “What do you do?”
One of the most challenging situations may be introducing yourself to a stranger about whom you know nothing. How are you supposed to know what will engage this stranger? You can’t. You can’t divine their 10-word blurb and you can’t say, “I’ll tell you if you tell me first.”

The solution: ask the question first, which means you have to speak up first. This is a dilemma for some of us, but one worth getting over if it means the rest of the conversation will go more smoothly. If you make a habit of being the first one to ask the question, you will learn enough about the other person to guide you toward your best blurb to say to that person.

What to talk about: conversation starters
Use your blurb to exchange the basics, but don’t focus on yourself. Instead, become interesting, which means become a good conversationalist.

This has two components: 1. Listening well and 2. Bringing ideas, topics, questions, projects, and your own challenges to discuss.

Strive to become a good conversationalist. Some environments are easier than others. There will no doubt be events or parties where you just don’t feel welcomed or in the mood to chat. Try to get over that by using your conversation skills and topics.

Here are a couple personal examples from my experiences. Interesting things are constantly happening to me and probably to you too. Do you take notice of them? You should, if your goal is to become a good conversationalist. All you have to do is notice, remember the anecdote and then bring it up next time you’re in a networking situation.

For example, I sometimes ride my bike to the train in Hoboken to go into New York City. Recently I got on the train and without thinking left my bike helmet on the seat next to me when I got off. I didn’t even notice it until a few hours later when I was on my way back to Hoboken. I looked around for someone to ask about the Lost and Found. I noticed a command station at the end of the platform with a big glass window and as I approached, I saw my helmet sitting right there on the ledge, as if it was waiting for me. Someone has obviously returned it. That reaffirmed my faith in people, as well as in the PATH train.

Has anything like that happened to you lately? Do you have a feel-good story to share? If so, tell the story and see where it takes the conversation.

Here are a few other personal examples that I use as conversation starters:

1. Health issues. Due to osteoarthritis, I need a hip replacement. So I will sometimes bring that into the conversation and ask if my conversation partner knows anyone who’s had a hip replacement, etc. (Usually their mother has.) I have learned a lot of useful information this way.

2. Current events. You may want to stay away from politics, but you can always talk about the latest scientific discovery, award recipients, sports tournaments, etc. Movies are generally safe territory and quickly give you a good idea of what kind of person you’re talking to.

3. Facts you’ve learned or books you’ve read. Bring up a novel, biography or especially a business book that you’ve read and share a bit of what you’ve learned. For example, I’ve been reading “A User’s Guide to the Brain” and I learned that chickens have 25 taste buds, while humans have 2-5,000. Drop that little tidbit into the conversation and see where it goes.

4. Jury duty. I was selected to sit on a grand jury recently and have been bringing it up as a topic in many different environments. Everyone seems to have a story about either ducking jury duty or doing it. What other civic activity could lots of people relate to?

5. And when in doubt, talk about the food. If there is a buffet, stand by it and make recommendations to anyone who approaches about what's good (or bad). But be sure to keep your hands free to shake hands and exchange business cards.

Don’t just say, “I’m fine”
When someone asks how you are, instead of responding with a bland, “everything’s fine” or “Nothing much,” take the opportunity to highlight a project you’re working on. Or, if you’ve acquired a new skill or accomplished a new goal, mention that. It’s not bragging if you focus on the facts.

Getting deeper into the conversation

Once you’ve got your personal introductions out of the way, it’s time to dig in deeper. There are two ways this can go. If you take the initiative to lead the conversation, your genuine curiosity could kick in and you ask about something you’ve heard the other person say.

If you don’t take the lead, they’re likely to ask you about something you’ve said. That’s good too and one “novel” way to convey more details about your work is by telling stories. Everyone loves a good story, so instead of listing your accomplishments or reciting your resume, tell them a story.

Stories are ideal for a sit-down networking luncheon or on a plane, situations where you can say more than your blurbs, where you have a little more time to chat. People relax to listen, bringing one level of defense down. Also, stories inspire, motivate and engage people. We tend to listen closely to stories told with genuine enthusiasm and passion, no matter what the story is about. Your listener may immediately start identifying with characters in your story, thinking to themselves, "Oh yeah, that happened to me too. We have a lot in common." Or, "I need someone to help me with that too."

Tell stories about projects you’ve worked on, with a focus on the outcome that resulted from the effort you put in -- how you were a hero and saved the day! Use examples that your listener will relate to and which reinforce the aspect of you that would mean the most to them. Include characters he can identify with, a situation that would be familiar, a crisis that might be just like the one he’s in right now, as a matter of fact.

And when you’re done with a story and if there’s a pause in the conversation, ask your partner to tell you a story.

Excerpted from Stop Pushing Me Around: A Workplace Guide for the Timid, Shy and Less Assertive (Career Press, 2006). Order your copy here.


Blogger Julie Plenty said...


Interesting excerpt and full of practical advice. The two second reminder for me is a good one, because once that window has gone......

I don't find making small talk particularly difficult, but I DO find it tiring.

That's because I'm both an introvert and intuitive empath, which means that I take stuff in very, very deeply, even if it's something "trivial" like the weather, because I can feel what's underneath what people are saying.

I tend to take in other people's feelings and emotions and have had to train myself not to become overwhelmed and keep centred.

In meetings, I was always anxious to get to the point of what was being said, because so much of it seemed to be hot air.

I realise that people were thinking out loud and connecting (the extroverts amongst us), but to me it just felt tiring, especially as I could see the "answer" pretty much before anyone else anyway.

For me, I think it's to find an arena that suits my skills and personality. I've worked in different organizations and realise that working in large corporate organizations goes against all of my skills and talents.

7:34 AM  
Blogger José Angel Santana, Ph.D. said...

I came here to write about the “face-to-face” section of this post. Interesting, Julie Plenty (above) mentioned a few things I was going to make reference to, talking about “the weather” and “feelings.”

I have found that the most meaningful way to break the ice with someone is to first notice something about the other person that I might have in common with that person. Then, if one cares to mention something about that, it will give each of us something to talk about. This is why people talk about “the weather.”

With practice one gets better and better at noticing significant things that one has in common with others. One then finds oneself never at a loss to talk about anything with anyone.

Feelings are perfect because we all have them. If we about personality types then of course it’s important to modulate the emotional volume in proper adjustment with whom we are speaking.

This is what I have found.

(I guess I'm sort of doing that with this comment.)

Thanks for the interesting topic, Ilise.

"The final frontier may be human relationships, one person to another." -- Buzz Aldrin, Astronaut

6:13 PM  
Blogger odw said...

In all of the male-dominated blue collar workplaces I've worked , small talk means being macho, confrontational, insulting, and using a lot of cusswords. It seems like when you meet someone new, you've got to plan some good insults. This type of behaviour seems to win the respect of most of the dominant males. God help you if you're perceived as the weakest / shyest male in the lot. Then you will be the "gay" one and considered a "pussy".

4:41 PM  

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