• Handpicked Harrogate

Is small talk social glue or just white noise?

In business, small talk can be a segue into big talk – the trick is knowing when to use it and when not to

The Royal Family rely on their small talk skills at work, but sometimes getting to the point can be better in business. Photograph: Reuters

Small talk is a fundamental social bonding tool, passed down from our primates, according to a study from Princeton University. The researchers have been examining how lemurs use vocalisations, akin to our chit-chat, to build familiarity and closeness. Dubbed “grooming at arm’s length”, humans do it too. The actual content of the exchange is not the most important part; it is the social function it serves. Small talk can offer a way into business exchanges – a safety buffer before the hard numbers and negotiation.

Whether pitching for investment, winning new clients or building contacts, knowing how to connect with others through small talk can be an asset, says career coach and psychologist Salma Shah.

Shah says: “Doing business with a person carries risk and lots of unknowns; from a psychological point of view, ‘good’ small talk – when we connect with someone – makes us relax, open up and trust [...] A good conversation creates a feelgood factor and a positive emotional limbic response, which we then associate with that person.”

But there are caveats. Small talk can be a segue into big talk; but in the busy world of business, the trick is knowing when – and when not – to use it.

Use your judgment Sara Trechman, co-founder of healthy snack food startup Well&Truly, secured a meeting with one of the top five supermarkets after a chance chat in a queue for coffee at a Barcelona trade show.

Trechman says: “We talked about how long the queue was taking and places in Spain never having any change – it turned out she was a buyer for one of the top five supermarkets and it set off a business conversation,” she says.

Launched in February by Trechman and her sister-in-law Maria Norrman, Well&Truly has secured listings in Tesco and Whole Foods. “We’ve found that starting off conversations with small talk allows us to find similarities other than business; it builds an element of common ground,” Trechman says. “At the same time, you need to be able to read when investors want to get straight to the numbers, without any sort of preamble. When pitching to big supermarkets we know they’re time-poor and have multiple other meetings to get through.”

For Well&Truly, small talk has been a part of consolidating business relationships.

Have something worthwhile to say David Atkinson, managing director of Yorkshire Meatball Co, likes business transactions to be as simple and straightforward as the meatballs his father-son business makes. “Having sold and pitched at many levels in my time in small business, I’d say small talk is white noise,” he says. You can begin a meeting with pleasantries, but ultimately people are busy. Atkinson says his approach has always been to know why he is talking to someone and introduce himself as having a solution to their problems.

“Have something worthwhile to say and make sure you are asking questions, because the more time you’re chit-chatting about the weather, the less time you’re learning about the person you’re trying to sell to,” he says. His approach has worked so far – the company is set to launch a franchise model across the UK and its products will be on the shelves of four major retailers in the coming months.

Consider the context Evidently, context is everything. And so is recognising that some people do not like small talk. “Always take a steer from your potential customer if you are trying to win new business,” says Shah. “If they open with small talk, then do keep it going and go at their pace.” Equally, if you are with someone who just wants to keep things business only, Shah suggests mirroring their style. “This will make them feel comfortable and receptive to what you have to offer.”

Aadil Seedat, launched Greater Manchester-based Umbrella Host, a cloud computing service, three years ago. He says throwing in the odd cheesy joke or industry pun has won him contacts and business from his target audience – web developers. “They’re generally not very formal and enjoy a good laugh [...] But when delving down into figures I tend to avoid small talk because that’s the time you provide your serious commercial skills and experience.”

Do your research Asking open-ended questions is a great way to build rapport and establish common ground, says executive coach Geraldine Gallagher. “If I’m at an event I’ll ask the person why they’ve come along or what they have thought of the panels so far; go into curious-mode and learn about the people you’re talking to,” she says. Don’t overcomplicate things by going into a state of hyper-analysis which prevents you from being natural. And use your own boredom threshold as a marker of when to cut to the chase, or move on. “Let’s face it, small talk can be boring, and if you’re bored, they’re definitely bored too.”

If you are going to a business meeting, know who will be in the room and what they do by researching their backgrounds beforehand. “LinkedIn is a great tool for establishing whether there is professional common ground you can mention,” says Gallagher.

She suggests some stock questions you can try: “Asking about the environment you’re in is a good one, especially if it’s an interesting building”. What is going on in the news is another solid option, as long as you aren’t drawn into anything too political or religion-based. And don’t make the mistake of assuming the person who brings you up to the meeting is an assistant or secretary – they could be the one running the show once you get into the boardroom – so use the elevator ride up there to build some rapport and glean information.

But don’t overdo it. “If you make too much small talk it can detract from your gravitas and make it sound like you’re babbling,” says Gallagher. Nobody wants to hear about your nightmare journey down the M6 in minute detail.

Ultimately, remember why you’re there, and make sure you get across what it is you can do for the person in front of you.