From Small Talk to Big Talk

Albert Camus wrote that we tell small lies to each other during social interactions to help us navigate the exchange smoothly. The question “How was your trip here?” can be answered with “Fine.” Or “Good.” The well-known “dance” moves on. The actuality of that “fine” or “good” may have been a delayed departure, a terrifyingly turbulent flight or the mind-numbing experience of having a row mate on the flight insisting on telling you every detail of his stellar career in finance. In an effort to avoid contaminating whatever is coming next – a first meeting, a sales presentation or a negotiation – we lie. Or we lie because our assumption is that the questioner isn’t actually interested in hearing the truth, if it is more than fine or good.

At some level we all know that it is, in western culture anyway, a part of the social dance before we get down to the real business of the meeting. However, I have been struck at times by some sales’ professionals reluctance to engage successfully in this dance. I often speak with sales professionals who struggle to navigate the opening exchanges with a sense of poise and ease. I believe, for some, it is the difficulty of reconciling their desire to be authentic with what feels like an inauthentic social interaction. And that is why we call it small talk!

When I am working with sales professionals I always encourage them to at least try to engage in small talk before shifting into the business tasks that need to be addressed. Let the buyer decide if he/she/they want to or need to engage in this way. Our job is to demonstrate that we are genuinely interested in such a conversation. Here’s why it is worthwhile:

Small talk can be an important “human” moment where we calibrate through empathy our connection to each other. And small talk can lead to “Big Talk.” This is our work as sales professionals in these moments – to look for big talk opportunities, or deeper and more meaningful conversations from an apparently innocuous comment that when explored with a follow up question becomes a full-blown discussion. When the “What did you guys get up to at the weekend?” gets an “Oh, my husband and I drove up to wine country.” as a response from one of the buyers. This could go in two ways. One option is “That sounds lovely.” Or, alternatively, a question like “What’s your favorite vineyard and varietal?” This can open up a world of opportunity to hear more and deepen an otherwise lightweight connection. Remember, we don’t have to be experts in whatever topic may surface, what we need to be is genuinely curious and interested. Of course, use your discretion around the situation and time management to decide how far to take the conversation.

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