BOOK REVIEW: Dread small talk? Here's how to make a great first impression


Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Truly Connect with Others and Make a Killer First Impression by Diane Weston

Search Amazon for books on communication skills and you get over 50 000 listings. Do the same for making small talk, and you will find only 18% as many.

It is not because only sales people (a fraction of the business population) need to master the art of small talk - virtually everyone does. It is small talk that starts relationships and expands your network, and keeps loose relationships connected. This skill deserves attention.

Author Diane Weston has pulled together accessible models and useful advice with an underlying theme of authenticity.

Accept that you're always communicating

Let us start with the fact that you cannot not communicate. In any exchange, whether verbal or otherwise, you are always communicating, and every communication has a content and a relationship aspect. Even if you do nothing, that is sending a clear message. There is nothing I can or wish to communicate, and I do not wish to or cannot communicate with you.

Communication involves both what you say and how you say it. If there is a discrepancy between the words and the tone or body language, people consistently believe the non-verbal language. Your facial expression, in conjunction with your tone of voice, communicated more than the words you say.

Use non-verbal cues better

Smiling, an open, interested look, a neutral yet friendly face, or twinkling eyes are beneficial expressions. A frown, a bored face, a scared expression, a nervous, or an agitated look convey negative emotions and are counter-productive. Posture shows a lot about what you are feeling. A slumped posture tends to convey sadness, discontent, and giving up.

Before going into a social situation, a meeting, conference or event, "take five seconds and create an intention for what you want to communicate," Watson recommends.

Set an intention

It is important to have the correct mindset when going into a social situation. If you are negative and upset, those feelings communicate themselves to the other person through your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Your mindset is what tends to give your unconscious mind direction. Having a positive mindset will affect both the words that you speak as well as your non-verbal language, in order to bring about the kind of positive social experience that you want.

SOFTEN is the acronym Watson uses for the key elements of positive non-verbal behaviours. It stands for smile, open posture, forward lean, touch by shaking hands, eye contact, and nod.

Let go of fear

A common barrier to engaging in small talk is the fear of being judged. The five-second mindset preparation described above can be infused with a visualisation of yourself as part of the group, smiling and talking easily.

A valuable antidote to this fear is to genuinely care about the person you're speaking to and this is articulated in Watson's 'General Rules for Small Talk' section of the book.


It all starts with listening. Every person wants to be seen, recognised, and listened to. Listening is one of the best gifts you can give a person. To truly listen you need to be quiet inside, really paying attention to the words you are hearing and the cues you are receiving. Then respond in a way that shows that you have been listening and paying attention.

Of course, your conversational partners may not be practicing true listening, but there's no need to be offended, they simply aren't skilled yet.

The second imperative is to be curious. Many people don't practice this conversational rule. It is easy to "find others boring, and often because we are enamoured with our own story," Watson notes. By truly listening and paying attention you will find that people are far more fascinating. "Try looking at each person that you make small talk with as a treasure chest just waiting to be opened and the jewels within revealed."

…But also talk

It is also helpful to provide information about yourself. However, the rule of thumb is to let the other do more talking than you do, while at the same time not letting the conversation lag.

It is axiomatic that one needs to be respectful, but with the plethora of sensitivities strangers may have, it is necessary to be especially cautious. No one is going to want to keep talking to someone who is perceived as rude.

Pay attention to body language

Watch the non-verbal cues. If you get the feeling from the body language of the person you are talking to that they are bored, end the contact. There is no shame in moving on when the conversation is not going well. You can excuse yourself to get a drink or something else that will allow you to make a graceful exit from the conversation.

There is power in first impressions. If a book doesn't have a good cover, it doesn't matter how great the story is; nobody is going to read it. We assess a person in the first moment of looking at them and in the first minute or so of talking to them.

The book is filled with many practical techniques and insights including, that "it all comes down to treating a person right. Respect, honesty, authenticity, being genuinely interested in other people, and showing kindness is all it takes to become a small talk master."

This is a useful and easy book to read.

Readability         Light +--- Serious

Insights              High -+--- Low

Practical              High -+--- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of 'Strategy that Works' and 'The Executive Update.' Views expressed are his own.

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