Getting Beyond the Weather

By Heather Baldwin

If you dread having to make light conversation with unfamiliar audience members as you wait for everyone to show up to your presentation, here’s some encouraging news: those minutes of seemingly idle chat can be a gold mine if you know how to build rapport through small talk. And skillful small talk is simple if you follow two rules, says Brody Communications president Marjorie Brody: Be interested and be interesting.

The first one is the most important. Others likely will find you brilliant if you simply show a sincere interest in them, says Brody, so be observant and ask open-ended questions that get your client talking. Are there awards on your client’s wall? Ask about what she did to receive them. Is there a familiar book on your client’s bookshelf? Ask what he liked or didn’t like about it. Ask about hobbies and interests outside of work. Listen as they respond, and look for common ground.

The second element of prepresentation small talk is to be interesting, which essentially is a function of reading and seeking a variety of experiences. Read at least one newspaper, in its entirety, every day so you know what’s going on internationally, nationally and locally, says Brody. When traveling, Brody also picks up a local newspaper or watches a local news show so she’s up to date on issues that affect her audience. Salespeople should read at least one general news magazine such as Time or Newsweek, one business magazine such as Fortune and at least one magazine about the industry to which they sell, she says. And at least one book a month, a best-seller or a business book, is a must. “I’ve made some unbelievable business contacts just because we’ve read the same book,” says Brody.

Finally, have interests outside of work. Get involved with activities such as sports or travel. Brody, for instance, is training for a triathlon and has found the topic is of enormous interest to most people she meets. You don’t need to get that extreme, but you’re more likely to be remembered if you’re involved in an activity that’s a little out of the ordinary. “Remember, relationships are not just built on business,” Brody emphasizes. “Small talk can lead to big talk because it builds rapport.”