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Making small talk

The most important speaking most of us will ever do is making small talk. Small talk is incredibly important. Humans are social animals. Almost everything we do is with, thru, and because of our connections to others. Small talk is a vital to making connections. It’s a way to establish trust and strengthen relationships. And all of that start with a simple, “ are you?”


When I was younger I thought small talk was nonsense. I was all up in my head having deep thoughts and it seemed stopping talk about inconsequential things like the weather or what was on TV last night seemed...was beneath me. Why couldn’t we have a real conversation about something that mattered.


I understand now what I didn’t back then.


Any time we are chatting we are really having two conversations. One is the verbal; what we say, and the other is nonverbal. We are reading the other person’s body language. Are they uptight? Are they nervous? Do they seem unhappy? We are listening to their accents and watching what they do with their hands. We watch their eyes mostly. And all of this information is tremendously important. We need to know if this person is safe, if they could be our friend, or if we should move away from them. The actual words said, “Isn’t this weather wonderful?” are of minor importance. What matters is the other information we pick up from the nonverbals.

Kill the clutter.

My friend Andrea says some very smart things. And she should because she’s getting her master’s degree in psychology. But unfortunately, you have to listen very carefully to pick out the gems that she says. Why? Because she overloads her conversation with filler words and phrases. “I think that...I know...oh my gosh....I mean...really?” All of that is just clutter and the problem with verbal clutter is that it can distract everyone from how intelligent you really are. Your solution is to kill the clutter. Remove everything that doesn’t serve a purpose. And what do you put in it’s place? Nothing. Just silence. Silence signals strength and it doubles the power of the things you do say. Let me demonstrate.

“I think that, well, you know...I mean...gosh...sometimes...allowing people to choose...even when the choices are inconsequential...I know...might still makes that person feel like they have ownership.” Now try it with all the clutter removed and the same sentence seems much smarter. “Allowing people a choice (pause) even when that choice is inconsequential (pause) makes that person feel (pause) like they have ownership.” Do you hear the difference?

Notice their name​

The author Dale Carnegie said more than eighty years ago, “the sweetest sound in any language is a person’s own name.” And I believe it. I was at a Chinese restaurant in Jacksonville Florida recently when someone yelled my name from across the room. “Daniel! It’s Daniel Pennington!” It was the owner, Dennis Chan who I had worked with VERY briefly five years earlier. The fact that he remembered my name was very flattering and now anytime I am near Jacksonville I stop in and say hello.


“I have a terrible memory for names.” I feel for you. I do too. Or actually, I used to until I realized how powerful remembering names can be. That’s when I decided to develop a strategy for memorizing names.

Make it about them, bounce-it-back

The best conversationalists really don’t talk much. Instead they ask the right questions and get the other person to talk. One of your most useful tools to make this happen is the “bounce back.” It works like this. A family friend who you don’t know well stops you in the grocery store and asks about your college application. You answer...and then immediately flip it back to them. “I’ve put in a few applications and I still have a few more to go. (and now here’s the bounce-back) Remind me, which college did you go to?” And then follow up with questions about how they liked it, what their favorite classes were, advice on picking a major. The wonderful thing about a bounce-back is the person you are with ends up doing almost all of the talking, but they go away thinking YOU are a fantastic conversationalist. Try the Bounce-back in your next conversation.

Give people ‘wins’ in a conversation

My friend Cathy is charming and endlessly likeable and one day I studied her conversational style to see if I could pick up on what makes her so compelling. That’s when I noticed she is a master at allowing the other person to ‘win’. Let me set this up for you, we were waiting on a ride to the airport and chatting about work. Not anything deep or important, just making conversation, and I made a simple observation. Cathy stopped, held my hand, and looked at me closely in the eyes. She said, “Thank you. Thank you for saying that. I’ve always thought that but you put it into words beautifully.” I found that all the way to the airport I felt like a genius for whatever minor thing I had said. She gave me a ‘win.’ Then at the airport we ran into a mutual friend who talked about how he handles his carryon luggage. Again Cathy stopped, held his hand, and said, “You are so smart. I wish I was as smart as you. Thank you for sharing that tip.” Cathy is smart. In fact she is a master at giving whoever she is talking to a ‘win’ in the conversation.