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Chatting is a lucrative art form

Cliff Thompson
Preston Utley/Vail Daily Deborah Fine discusses "The Art of Small Talk" to an audience at the Lionsquare Lodge in Vail on Friday.
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VAIL – Have you ever attended a meeting, met new people, chatted briefly and within five minutes found you have nothing else to say and conversation becomes the equivalent of rapport roadkill? Sure you have, and you aren’t alone. It’s pretty common, but learning how to start, build and maintain a conversation is vital to being successful both personally and professionally, says Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk.””You need to frame every conversation with small talk,” she says.With a rapid-fire delivery, Fine recently addressed a luncheon gathering of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau in Vail, where she told the 60 attendees that she knows the wallflower routine well. She was a engineer who knew the technical details of her job, but didn’t have a clue about how to carry on a sustained social conversation with someone.”If you put me in a hospitality suite after a meeting I’d be like a fly on the wall,” she says. “I didn’t know what to say. I’d ask someone what they did for work.”After that the conversation would sputter to silence.”I didn’t know how to keep it going,” she says. She soon found she wasn’t alone.In time she studied the issue and found the problem pervasive enough she changed careers and became a lecturer on the art of small talk.

“What can you say to engage someone in a conversation?” she says. “It’s up to you to assume the burden of other people’s comfort in social situations.”It’s as easy as introducing yourself and then remembering the name of the person you’re talking to. Repeat the person’s name in conversation, Fine says.”Give them a gift of your name,” she says. “Be the first to say, ‘Hello.’ Every conversation is an opportunity for your next success.”What you say next is the key to keeping a conversation going. Don’t grill the person you just met with the “What do you do, how long have you lived here and are you married routine.” That’s the approach the FBI uses and it doesn’t work to keep a conversation going. Instead you have to employ the guile of a trial lawyer to stay connected.”Unless you know the answer to a question, don’t ask it,” she says. “Don’t ever ask them if they’re married or single. Instead, ask ‘What’s going on at work?’ or ‘Tell me about your family.'””If you open up and show interest they will talk,” Fine says.

Equally important are your responses to questions. “If someone asks you what you did last weekend, you need to think about what you’re going to say,” she says. Follow up comments are equally important: They can include “What do you mean by that?” “How will you spend the rest of the afternoon?” “That must have been frustrating” or “How were you able to manage?” she says. You can utilize “free” information such as noticing the logo on a shirt or jacket or the fact that the person you’re talking with is left-handed, she says.



In addition to talking, you also have to use proper listening techniques, including eye contact, an occasional nod and acknowledgment that you’re following the conversation.”You need to slow it down so it’s not like being in a batter’s cage and it’s more like a tennis match of back and forth,” she says. “Give them the gift of knowing they’ve been heard.”You also have to be conscious of body language. Non-verbal cues can stifle conversation. Some big “don’ts” include pointing, covering your mouth, rubbing or fondling body parts, fiddling with jewelry, tapping a pencil or pen, swinging a leg, crossing your arms across your chest, putting your hands on your hips or glancing away from the person who is speaking.You’ll convey a body image more likely to make some feel comfortable in conversation if you lean forward, maintain eye contact, open up your arms and body, relax your body posture, face your partner, nod and smile.And there are even polite techniques that allow you to exit from a conversation that has gone on too long or is so one-sided that you have no interest in continuing.’When someone won’t shut up, you can change the topic and show a white flag like they do in automobile racing,” says Fine. “That shows you’ve just got one lap left and it’s about over.”It’s as easy as saying, “I’ve only got a minute left,’ and it’s a device television interviewers use all the time, Fine says. Another exit line is “I’ve got to catch up with Joe. Would you like to come with me?” Often as not that’s sufficient to end the conversation. “Small talk is a little piece of packaging,” Fine says. That packaging can leave people with a positive impression and that packaging must work. Joe Leavitt of Alpine Sedans spent some time with Fine before the meeting and found she practices what she preaches.”It was fun being with her at the table,” he said. “She brought us all together.”Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 450, or cthompson@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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