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by David Solloway | November 11, 2019

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If there’s one activity that occurs at nearly every stage of the job search, it’s small talk. And unlike other aspects of the job search, small talk usually happens without warning. So to be successful in the job search, you need to be ready to engage in small talk at a moment’s notice. That means you need to be small talk savvy.

What Is Small Talk?

Have you ever had someone ask you, “How was your flight?” in the first few moments after saying “Hello”? If so, you’ve experienced someone attempting to conduct small talk. Small talk is often a light conversation between people sharing the same social space. During the job search, small talk occurs in many moments, such as when you’re attending a networking event, walking to the same meeting room, or during the first few minutes of an informational call.

What Is the Goal of Small Talk?

The goal of small talk is to build likability and trust in a manner that aligns with your target audience’s cultural preferences. In other words, after people conduct small talk with you, you want them to think that they like you and trust that continuing a relationship with you will be good for them. If you can get a person to think that way, you’re taking the first steps towards building a relationship with someone who will advocate for you when hiring managers are asking who should receive an offer.

So, How Do You Prepare for Small Talk Success?

Preparing for small talk success begins with familiarizing yourself with the typical structure of small talk. Most small talk conversations have a three-part structure: 1) question, 2) listen, and 3) respond.

Question

After you meet someone and say “Hello, I’m ___,” you’re ready to begin small talk. The first step of small talk can be initiated by anyone; status (age, level of employment, etc.) doesn’t matter. Starting with “How are you today, <name>?” is a simple and effective way to begin building likability and trust. Saying your small talk partner’s name shows you’re listening to your partner and releases feel-good chemicals in your partner’s brain, which your partner will associate with you.

As Steve Dalton, program director for daytime career services at the Fuqua School of Business, has suggested, your partner’s response to “How are you?” is very informative. The content and conduct of your partner’s response can inform you how best to manage the rest of the conversation. If your partner delivers a short response, you know to also deliver a short response. If your partner responds with “Okay,” you know that negative signals could likely be due to that person not feeling their best. A response of “Okay” is also a good indicator that person might not be in the mood for a long dialogue. The emotional information that “How are you?” provides is not something you want miss.

Listen

This is the most overlooked step in the small talk process. You can stand out in the job search by actively listening to what people are saying. Although interrupting speakers is common in the U.S., it’s not a recommended action in the early stages of relationships. Actively listening means using facial or vocal expressions to demonstrate you understand what the speaker is saying. At the same time, you want to interpret what the person is saying to determine how you’ll respond.

As you interpret what people are saying, focus on what excites them. Pay special attention to anything that excites them and that you can directly relate to. If someone gets excited about traveling to Tokyo and you studied in Tokyo, you can use that topic to create a bond with that person.

Respond

After you listen to someone answer a question, you can determine the best way to respond based on what you heard. If you noticed a person was excited about a topic, ask a follow-up question about that topic. That’s the best option, as follow-up questions have been shown to increase likability by 20 percent. If you’re asked a question, briefly respond to the question and then ask a similar question. It’s important to reveal a bit about who you are for your small talk partners to feel comfortable sharing more about themselves. If they shared something you can directly relate to, share two sentences about how you relate to what they shared. Then ask a follow-up question about the same topic, or ask a question about a new topic.

The listen stage transitions to the response stage very quickly and requires rapid mental processing. Practice small talk in low-stakes situations to build your competence and confidence in managing the transition.

How Do You Manage Unfamiliar Topics in Small Talk?

Often, people feel like they can’t engage in small talk if they don’t know about the topic of discussion. A simple move to build trust and likability when engaging in unfamiliar topics is to take the role of a learner and ask a few questions. People enjoy teaching others about their favorite subjects. After you’ve given your partners the opportunity to show off their expertise, bridge the conversation into a topic you’re more comfortable discussing. The point here is you want to share enough information for your partners to feel like you’re invested in the conversation while asking a question after you share your response. Remember, unfamiliar topics are great opportunities to ask questions and allow your small talk partners time to talk about something they love. The more they get to talk about what they love, the more they like you.

How Do You Know When to End Small Talk?

The short answer is to follow the lead of your small talk partner. Often, people will signal they’re ready to move on from small talk when they repeatedly look away from you, finish their drink, begin responding with shorter answers, or look at their watch. If you’re not in a meeting, then go ahead and excuse yourself.

To excuse yourself, take the following actions:

  • Express how you’ve appreciated chatting with them.
  • Shake hands with them.
  • Share how you look forward to continue chatting with them in the future.
  • Explain that you need to do something such as refresh your drink, visit the restroom, or briefly chat with a specific person who is also at the event.

If you’re engaging in small talk before an informational call, you can decide when to shift from small talk to your informational questions. Typically, it’s best to engage in two to three small talk questions before moving into your first informational questions. You can make the shift by saying, “Well, , I’m so glad you’re willing to take time to speak with me. Do you mind if I jump into the questions I’ve been eager to ask you?”

If you’re engaging in small talk before a job interview, interviewers will typically move from small talk to the interview by beginning to share information about the interview process and asking if you’re ready to begin. Other times, they’ll signal the interview is starting by saying, “Tell me about yourself.” Either way, allow them to take the lead. If you run into a long pause, express appreciation by saying, “I’m so glad to be interviewing with you today,” and then allow the interviewer to make the next move.

Small Talk Takes Practice

You’ll interact with many people throughout the job search. Sometimes you’ll do a great job engaging in small talk. Other times you’ll feel like you could have done a better job at small talk (and sometimes you’ll find recruiters who could improve their small talk skills). Know that nearly everyone, at times, experiences difficulty with small talk. Ultimately, the people who become small talk savvy are those who continue to practice their questions and responses.

David Solloway is a career consultant, life coach, and cross-cultural training/development specialist. He works as the assistant director for Daytime MBA Career Services at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

This post was excerpted from the new Vault Guide to the International MBA Job Search.

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