Small Talk: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Aside from being a crowd-pleaser, Sergio Leone’s classic also holds a good few lessons for sales reps. None more so than Clint Eastwood’s iconic quote: “there are two kinds of people in the world those with guns and those that dig.” There is no worse feeling than turning up to a sales call without a few rounds of Small Talk ammo. And if you do, chances are you’ll be digging your way through some awkward chit-chat to get things started.

Why Small Talk still is a sales rep’s secret weapon

Priming is a well known psychological effect by which the set up of a conversation drastically alters its outcome. Establishing a connection with your prospect – and coming off as a real person as opposed to just another sales rep – is one of the secrets of positive priming that is scientifically proven to help shift the outcome of your request. And sales reps that have the gift of gab are crushing it with this one simple rule. We’ve put together a cheat sheet to up your Small Talk game, as well as some openers you’ll want to avoid at all costs:

#1 The Good: tried and tested techniques to get the conversation started

Forget the old “how’s the weather over there,” and get as personal as you can. Try to establish overlapping connections, and work from there to leverage a second psychological effect: liking. Attaching yourself to something positive in your prospect’s mind will allow you benefit from the aura it holds to them.

  • The prospect’s background: Their hometown or state, Alma Mater, previous companies, are all great places to start off if you share a connection to them – and all are publicly available on LinkedIn.
  • The prospect’s company: A shared investor, a product of theirs that you or your company use, a recent fundraising announcement, a recent launch can also help show you’ve done your homework and are taking an active interest in doing business together.
  • The (not too) personal story: I recently got engaged, I am turning 30 next week, my son just turned 5, I just got back from visiting a new place, if you would feel comfortable telling your Mom, you can safely rely on a good ol’ personal anecdote.
  • The (not too) personal question: So you don’t have any big news to share, let the prospect do the work. Ask them how long they’ve been at their job for, how they got into the company, what they did before. We all like a little attention and the chance to share some of our achievements.

Added tip: keep it short. The goal here is to rope the prospect into a conversation, so let the prospect come to you. If you’re doing most of the talking, you’re doing it wrong.

#2 The Bad: use these at your own peril!

These Small Talk tips still regularly get shared around the water cooler. It’s our duty to inform you that these icebreakers are categorically ineffective. If you’re still using these, you need to update your playbook:

  • Sports: What is it, 1950? If you’re go-to opener is to talk about the big game, it might fall flat if you’re not talking to the demographic that cares and actively follows sports news. Exception: If you’re selling to sports fans, you can safely use this as an icebreaker.
  • News: Have you tuned into the news recently? The current climate is so politically charged, no news item seems to be a safe enough bet when it comes to avoiding a hostile reaction. Which is the exact opposite of what you’re looking for.
  • The weather: Sunny with a mild chance of boring. Not only will this tactic leave your prospect rolling their eyes, you’ll also be bored of hearing the forecast from all corners of the country. And your indifference to the subject will come across to your prospect, no matter how good an actor you think you are.
  • A joke: Just, no.

#3 The Ugly: they seemed like a good idea at the time…

These well-meaning strategies will actually deter potential buyers from considering your product. Where Small Talk is meant to get things started, these icebreakers are a real turn-off. Using them will backfire spectacularly, landing you back to square one: awkward chit-chat.

  • The false positive: I see you know so-and-so on LinkedIn, I see you follow X or Y on Twitter, I noticed you liked this article on LinkedIn. These may seem like a good idea on paper, but more often than not they’re a misfire: your prospect doesn’t actually know the person, they don’t remember the article or account you’re referencing, and now things are starting to get real awkward, real fast.
  • The stalker: You probably shouldn’t be looking for an icebreaker on Facebook, Instagram and other private channels. Visiting the same city, following the same sports team, sharing political convictions: they may seem like you’re “in” to a good conversation. But they’ll only leave the prospect wondering why you bothered looking up their history.
  • The trash-talker: If your take on the opener you’ve chosen is negative – I worked there too and hated it, I come from there as well and would never consider moving back, I also visited there and had the worst vacation of my life – maybe avoid the topic entirely. Good Small Talk is about being light-hearted, not depressing.
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