During the acres of post-election analysis, one issue was repeatedly referred to as a factor in the result: Theresa May’s fear of/inability to do small talk. One of her former speech writers described the moment he “discovered May had no small talk whatsoever. She was perfectly comfortable with silence.” Others confirm that she doesn’t do what sociolinguist Deborah Tannen calls ‘rapport talk’ (as opposed to ‘report talk’ – work related conversation).
Where previously silence served her well (notably not getting embroiled in the Andrea Leadsome ‘motherhood’ row) and communicated dignity, her failure to engage with (ordinary) people during the election campaign was perceived as arrogance. Lack of interest in others is rarely considered a positive trait.
But how can she (and her advisers) not understand the importance of resonating with others? Communication is rarely just an exchange of information. It’s a means to building relationships; a way of making an emotional connection.
Many others seem to know this. Sheryl Sandberg, in Lean In, tells how she had to learn to do ‘rapport talk’ with her Google boss before he was ready for ‘report talk’. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers considers that ‘knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect’, is a fundamental key to success in life. And Theodore Roosevelt believed that ‘the most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people’.
Of course Mrs May is not the only person to struggle. I work with many who fear the loss of control which often accompanies small talk (I wonder if this is at the heart of her troubles. She’s very good at pre-prepared speeches). Others are anxious that they have nothing interesting to say. A few feel it’s a waste of time. I notice that the most widely read of my monthly blogs are on this subject.
While I wouldn’t presume to offer the Prime Minister any advice, here at some practical ways in which we can all improve our small talk skills.
- Preparation. Anticipate who you will be speaking to, as best you can. Then research topics which they might be interested in (sport, travel, finance, music, food, technology???). You only need the flimsiest amount of intel. Subscribe to The Week – the fount of all knowledge in my household.
- Ask questions and genuinely listen to the answers. Don’t worry about being interesting. Be interested instead. It’s much more appealing. If the conversation drifts away from your knowledge bank, you can’t go wrong with these 3 areas of enquiry – what’s happened, why, what next?
- Learn to spot conversational starters in your immediate vicinity – the drink, food, location, event, speakers, her frock, his tie, the weather!
- Train your ear to listen for conversational ‘stepping stones’ – a way of extending the conversation and broadening it to another topic. If they mention they’re going on holiday, make a mental post-it note to ask where. That could then lead on to the food of that country, cooking in general, cookery programmes on TV, TV in general, your latest box set (Night Manager), the next James Bond, movies in general. And so on and so on and so on.
Underpinning all these tools though is a simple thing – curiosity. If you approach a conversation believing that you might discover something interesting, useful, inspiring or valuable, your small talk will reap big rewards.