April 18, 2024

People Who Excel at Starting a Conversation Always Lead with This, Says Stanford Communications Expert (TPL Insights #218)

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with italicized content from the article by Minda Zetlin published on April 15, 2024, in Inc. Magazine

I read this article this morning and felt I had to share it. I don’t know of a single CEO, senior leader, or single shingle consultant who doesn’t want more revenue. As a fledgling 24-year-old search consultant, I was blessed to have a mentor who transferred his passion for great search to me. He took me under his wing, taught me everything he knew about “the art and science” of retained search, and showed me how to generate revenue.

Larry Gladstone was a 47-year-old Brown undergrad and Harvard MBA who loved the search consulting profession. He also “appeared” to love generating revenue. Larry was a dear friend of mine for 32 years until he passed away at 79. The reason I say that Larry appeared to love business development is that he told me many times that he struggled with “sales” initially. Like many of us who love the work, he thought he might not make it one point, because he considered himself an extreme introvert.

Larry was an extremely bright, studious, and reflective man. He was a voracious reader and loved his time alone. He told me that because he loved the work so much, he’d worked hard for a time to change the way he saw himself. He said the more he saw himself as someone who was curious about people the same way he was interested in the arts and history, meeting new people and starting conversations became easy. Now that I understand the way the human mind works, it makes perfect sense. Human beings cannot consistently behave in a manner inconsistent with the way they see themselves.

 How good are you at starting conversations with strangers? For most of us, it’s an uncomfortable moment. We hate the prospect of making small talk. But we can do it more effectively if we lead with curiosity, says Stanford lecturer and communication instructor Matt Abrahams, host of the highly popular podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart.

“Small talk gets a bad rap,” he says. “A lot of us dread it when in fact, big things happen during small talk.” Small talk is an opportunity for us to learn about others, to learn about ourselves, and to collaborate, he says. “I often challenge people to think about their friendship network. How many of your friends did you initially meet through small talk? For most people it’s a pretty hefty percentage.”

If small talk is more valuable than we think, how do we get good at it? “A lot of us put tremendous pressure on ourselves to be interesting,” Abrahams explains. “We want to say exciting, valuable, relevant stuff, and it’s the wrong mindset. I think many of us see small talk as a tennis match where the goal is to get the ball over the net and score. I think we should see it more like Hacky Sack. The goal is to serve it to the person so they get and can serve it back to you. Success is when you all work together.”

With that Hacky Sack approach in mind, Abrahams quotes matchmaker and author Rachel Greenwald, who told his podcast audience that “the goal is to be interested, not interesting.”

In other words, “it’s about curiosity,” Abrahams says. “Starting with questions, observing things in context, bringing up relevant information. So if you’re at a corporate event, you could talk about the keynote speech. If you’re at a cocktail party, you could talk about what’s happening in the room.” Above all, he says, “avoid the doom loops of ‘Hi, how are you?’ ‘Fine, how are you?’ And then you’re nowhere better off.”

Turning conversations into sales

Of course, if you’re at a professional gathering, there’s a good chance you have a specific agenda in mind when starting a conversation–you’re looking for customers, investment, new team members, useful information, or all of the above. How do you bring the conversation around from small talk to where you want it to go?

That can be hard, Abrahams says, but you can do it. “What you’re trying to do is find hooks and ways of bridging to the topic you want to discuss so that it could become a natural part of the conversation,” he says. It helps, he adds, if you already have these goals in mind before you arrive at the event.

Paraphrasing can be an effective approach, he says. It’s often taught as a tactic in negotiations or conflict resolution, but it’s useful in many more situations than those. “I think paraphrasing is perhaps the most versatile skill in personal communication,” Abrahams says. “You take something that the other person has said, you digest it in your own way because we don’t repeat word for word, you highlight something of importance, and then you use that to pivot or reframe the conversation.”

For example, if you’re at the bar during an event and someone comments that the drinks are expensive, you can agree that they are and then wonder out loud how much of the cost is due to high transaction processing fees. You’ve just moved the conversation to a whole new topic. “It’s easier than, ‘OK, now that we’ve done the polite thing, let’s get down to business.'” Abrahams says. “If you can somehow through the conversation get to something relevant to the product or service you offer, that’s better.”

I sincerely hope this article has been helpful. Give me a call or drop me an email, and I’ll share my book list that may further assist you in your journey. Two great ones to start with are Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human and Adam Grant’s Hidden Potential.

Warmest Regards,

Rob