The Art of Small Talk: Why Talented Leaders Excel At This

02/24/2016 12:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

By: Cindy Wahler

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Small talk is one of the most underrated leadership skills. Yet, if you can excel at this type of banter it can really serve to establish and build your career as a successful leader. Achievement of your goals and objectives is very much dependent upon your ability to influence through others. These key partnerships are germane to achieving your business objectives.

There are many who don't perceive the value of what appears to be idle chit chat. Here are what a number of my clients have to say. " There is little time for that kind of conversation, we have work to do." " I prefer economy of words." "Chatting about vacations, home renovations take time away from getting great things done."

Small talk as a stand alone has restricted merit. Credibility is established by a leader's track record of accomplishments. These accomplishments might include cost savings, increased profit margins, improved efficiencies, creating new ways of doing business, enhanced customer loyalty, etc. This is part of a leader's mandate.

As a young leader establishing your career or as a seasoned veteran, relationships are the core to your success. In order to achieve this success galvanizing your team to adopt, own, and execute on the overall vision is critical. You might have the best strategy in the world. Without your team contributing, shaping and operationalizing this strategy you run the risk of your vision being stored on your hard drive.

So how do you motivate? Both your team and your colleagues want two things. They want to know who you are as a person. Outside of work how do you spend your time? What are your passions and interests? Where did you grow up? What are your children up to? And many other interesting anecdotes.

You have a choice. You can state that you had a great vacation or you can share stories about your vacation. This allows others to learn about you the person, not just you their colleague or manager. You spend many waking hours with your peers and direct reports and sharing a part of your self actually motivates others to work harder for you. Your similarities and differences make you more interesting and enhance your ability to influence. Your stories get shared and sometimes even become company folklore.

The second request of your team is the expectation that you also have an interest in who they are. I recall one of my clients indicating that she felt it was potentially intrusive to ask personal questions. There are ways to connect with others while respecting personal boundaries. One of my clients didn't have any pictures of her children in her office. I knew she had a family and I remarked on this. She stated that she thought photos or any personal symbols were a distraction. I explained to her that it allows others to connect and make conversation whether it is family or travel photos, or interesting memorabilia. It is serves as a vehicle for exchange or reciprocity.

Many leaders are natural at small talk. They are gifted storytellers. They do this with ease. Others experience this as a painful exercise. If you watch great presenters they always share an amusing or fascinating story. It works like magic. Why? Because you listen to the human side which creates a connection and a likability quotient. They now have your attention. They command the room and you are now listening with intent.

Whether you are presenting to a large audience or talking with a member of your team your primary goal is to rally people around you. If you are not natural at this one of the great techniques is to ask questions. Introverts excel at this. They may be less comfortable at the outset to share information. Once though they start to ask questions, this provides the basis for sharing stories and finding common ground.

It is also helpful to think in advance of interesting facts about yourself that you can share. Great leaders who were not originally natural at this, learn these skills. They learn to think in advance of a potential list of topics. They also reflect on their target audience. With practice and time they become more natural. They then see how small talk pays off in dividends relative to achieving the necessary support to realize their goals.

There are many books and resources on how to engage in small talk. If this were truly a "small" issue, there wouldn't be a market for this skill set. As a young leader establishing your career or as a seasoned veteran you certainly aspire to make a difference. If so, selling your leadership brand means more than advancing innovative ideas. It's an art to connect with others in personally meaningful ways. This too has important currency for your ability to make your mark.


Cindy Wahler, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a leadership consultant specializing in executive coaching and talent management. She can be contacted at

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