February 28, 2005
Excerpts: Never Eat Alone - Part II
So you werent born with that essential ingredient of charm, the gift of gab. So what? Few are.
Weve all struggled with that ancient fear of walking into a room full of complete strangers and having nothing to say. Instead of looking out at a sea of potential new friends and associates, we see terrifying obstacles to the wet bar. It happens at business meetings, conferences, PTA meetings, and in just about every forum where being social matters. Thats why small talk is so important. Thats also why, for those of us without a knack for small talk, situations such as these that can help us meet so many others are also the situations that make us feel the most naked and uneasy.
And in this area, technology hasnt helped one bit. Wallflowers see e-mail and instant messaging as a nifty escape hatch from having to interact with others. The truth is, however, that these new modes of communication arent particularly good for creating new relationships. The digital medium is all about speed and brevity. It may make communication efficient, but its not effective when it comes to making friends.
Yet some are able to negotiate social situations with relative ease. How do they do it?
The answer, most people assume, is that the ability to make successful small talk is somehow innate, is something youre born with. While comforting, this assumption is entirely untrue. Conversation is an acquired skill. If you have the determination and the proper information, just like any other skill, it can be learned.
The problem is that so much of the information out there is flat-out wrong. I know too many CEOs who take pride in their terse, bottom-line behavior. They proudly assert their disinterest in playing the game; they revel in their inability to be anything but gruff.
But the fact is that small talkthe kind that happens between two people who dont know each otheris the most important talk we do. Language is the most direct and effective method for communicating our objectives. When playwrights and screenwriters develop characters for their work, the first thing they establish is motivation. What does the character want? What is he or she after? What are his or her desires? The answers dictate what that character will and wont say in dialogue. That exercise is not particular to the dramatic world; its a reflection of how we humans are hardwired. We use words not only to articulate and make concrete our own deepest desires, but also to enlist others in quenching those desires.
About ten years ago, Thomas Harrell, a professor of applied psychology at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, set out to identify the traits of its most successful alumni. Studying a group of MBAs a decade after their graduation, he found that grade-point average had no bearing on success. The one trait hat was common among the classs most accomplished graduates was verbal fluency. Those that had built businesses and climbed the corporate ladder with amazing speed were those who could confidently make conversation with anyone in any situation. Investors, customers, and bosses posed no more of a threat than colleagues, secretaries, and friends. In front of an audience, at a dinner, or in a cab, these people knew how to talk.
As Harrells study confirmed, the more successfully you use language, the faster you can get ahead in life.
So what should your objective be in making small talk? Good question. The goal is simple: Start a conversation, keep it going, create a bond,and leave with the other person thinking,I dig that person,or whatever other generational variation of that phrase you want to use.
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About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.