How to Start Great Small Talk

You've been there. You're introduced to someone at a party or business meeting. You shake hands, your eyes meet . . . and suddenly your entire body of knowledge dries up and thought processes come to a screeching halt. You fish for a topic to fill the awkward silence. Failing, your new contact slips away in the direction of the cheese tray.

We want the first words falling from our lips to be sparkling, witty, and insightful. We want our listeners to immediately recognize how riveting we are. I was once at a gathering where everybody was sparkling, witty, insightful, and riveting. It drove me berserk because most of these same everybodies felt they had to prove it in their first ten words or less!

Several years ago, the Mensa organization, a social group of extremely bright individuals who score in the country's top 2 percent in intelligence, invited me to be a keynote speaker at their annual convention. Their cocktail party was in full swing in the lobby of the hotel as I arrived. After checking in, I hauled my bags through the hoard of happy-hour Mensans to the elevator. The doors separated and I stepped into an elevator packed with party goers. As we began the journey up to our respective floors, the elevator gave several sleepy jerks.

"Hmm," I remarked, in response to the elevator's sluggishness, "the elevator seems a little flaky." Suddenly, each elevator occupant, feeling compelled to exhibit his or her 132-plus IQ, pounced forth with a thunderous explanation. "It's obviously got poor rail-guide alignment," announced one. "The relay contact is not made up," declared another. Suddenly I felt like a grasshopper trapped in a stereo speaker. I couldn't wait to escape the attack of the mental giants.

Afterward, in the solitude of my room, I thought back and reflected that the Mensans' answers were, indeed, interesting. Why then did I have an adverse reaction? I realized it was too much, too soon. I was tired. Their high energy and intensity jarred my sluggish state.

You see, small talk is not about facts or words. It's about music, about melody. Small talk is about putting people at ease. It's about making comforting noises together like cats purring, children humming, or groups chanting. You must first match your listener's mood.

Like repeating the note on the music teacher's harmonica, top communicators pick up on their listener's tone of voice and duplicate it. Instead of jumping in with such intensity, the Mensans could have momentarily matched my lethargic mood by saying,

"Yes, it is slow, isn't it?" Had they then prefaced their information with, "Have you ever been curious why an elevator is slow?" I would have responded with a sincere "Yes, I have." After a moment of equalized energy levels, I would have welcomed their explanations about the rail-guard alignment or whatever the heck it was. And friendships might have started.

I'm sure you've suffered the aggression of a mood mismatch. Have you ever been relaxing when some overexcited, hot-breathed colleague starts pounding you with questions? Or the reverse: you're late, rushing to a meeting, when an associate stops you and starts lazily narrating a long, languorous story. No matter how interesting the tale, you don't want to hear it now.

The first step in starting a conversation without strangling it is to match your listener's mood, if only for a sentence or two. When it comes to small talk, think music, not words. Is your listener adagio or allegro? Match that pace. I call it "Make a Mood Match."

Matching Their Mood Can Make or Break the Sale

Matching customers' moods is crucial for salespeople. Some years ago, I decided to throw a surprise party for my best friend Stella. It was going to be a triple-whammy party because she was celebrating three events. One, it was Stella's birthday. Two, she was newly engaged. And three, Stella had just landed her dream job. She had been my buddy since grade school, and I was floating on air over her birthday-engagement-congratulations bash.

I had heard one of the best French restaurants in town had an attractive back room for parties. About 5 p.m. one afternoon, I wafted happily into the restaurant and found the seated maître d' languidly looking over his reservation book. I began excitedly babbling about Stella's triple-whammy celebration and asked to see that fabulous back room I'd heard so much about. Without a smile or moving a muscle, he said, "Zee room ees een zee back. You can go zee eet eef you like."

CRASH. What a party pooper! His morose mood kicked all the party spirit out of me, and I no longer wanted to rent his stupid space. Before I even looked at the room, he lost the rental. I left his restaurant vowing to find a place where the management would at least appear to share the joy of the happy occasion. Every mother knows this instinctively. To quiet a whimpering infant, Mama doesn't just shake her finger and shout, "Quiet down." No, Mama picks baby up. Mama cries, "Ooh, ooh, oh," sympathetically matching baby's misery for a few moments. Mama then gradually transitions the two of them into hush-hush happy sounds. Your listeners are all big babies! Match their mood if you want them to stop crying, start buying, or otherwise come 'round to your way of thinking.


Make a Mood Match

Before opening your mouth, take a "voice sample" of your listener to detect his or her state of mind. Take a "psychic photograph" of the expression to see if your listener looks buoyant, bored, or blitzed. If you ever want to bring people around to your thoughts, you must match their mood and voice tone, if only for a moment.