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Vulnerability: The Secret to Successful Small Talk

By Heather Baldwin

Here’s some advice you don’t hear every day: The next time you’re trying to connect with a prospect through small talk, make yourself vulnerable. Forget about holding your cards close to your chest and talking about the weather, instead say what’s on your mind. Small-talk experts “claim that when you first meet a person, you should avoid unpleasant, overly personal and highly controversial issues. Don’t listen to those people!” urges Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of marketing and sales consultancy FerrazziGreenlight and author of Never Eat Alone and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time (Doubleday, 2005). “I believe that vulnerability is one of the most underappreciated assets in business today.”

As proof, Ferrazzi recalls a preconference dinner he once had with the heads of marketing for major companies such as Wal-Mart, Cigna, eBay and others. It was an occasion that called for him being at his best, yet Ferrazzi, stung by a difficult relationship breakup earlier that day, was doing all the things he advised against, including hiding behind polite, inconsequential questions about nothing in particular. It was clear, he said, that he and his conversation partner couldn’t wait for the check. Realizing what was happening, he eventually just came out and apologized for being so dull. “It’s been a tough day,” he admitted. “I just had a board meeting where my board members put me through the wringer. I also just suffered a pretty difficult breakup and it’s still got me down.” His flash of vulnerability opened the dam. His conversation partner visibly relaxed and started talking about her divorce. Then everyone at the table, most of whom were normally reserved, buttoned-up professionals, started chiming in and discussing the emotional ramifications of breakups and how challenging they can be. By the end of the evening, says Ferrazzi, it had become an incredible dinner. Ferrazzi now counts many of those people as customers and all of them as friends. He credits his single moment of vulnerability for that achievement.

“There are fail-safe conversation starters suitable for every business function such as: How did you get started in your business? What do you enjoy most about your profession?” says Ferrazzi. “But safety generally produces safe (read: boring) results. The real winners – those with astounding careers, warm relationships and unstoppable charisma – are the people who put it all out there and don’t waste a bunch of time and energy trying to be something or someone they’re not. Charm is simply a matter of being yourself.”

So how do you do it? First, be approachable by giving a hearty smile, maintaining a good balance of eye contact, unfolding your arms and learning to touch people. “Touching is a powerful act,” says Ferrazzi. “My favorite way to break through the distance between me and the person I’m trying to establish a bond with is to touch the other person’s elbow. It conveys just the right amount of intimacy.” Other tips: Be sincere, learn to listen and adjust your conversation style to match your partner’s. Finally, make sure you have something to say. Ferrazzi recommends cultivating a niche interest for which you have a passion and can tell interesting stories. Just remember not to monopolize the conversation with it. “Share your passion,” he advises, “but don’t preach it.”