First Impressions … Why Small Talk is Such a Big Deal

Seven seconds. Experts tell us that’s how long it takes to make a first impression.

No pressure … really. There you are, stranded in the elevator with a co-worker you’ve never met. Neither of you say a word … the elevator stops, and you both exit. That’s a lost opportunity.

In an article for Psychology Today, Karla Starr simplifies first impressions as a way your brain “assigns a value to a person … based on how important they are to your own motivations. Our impressions factor in everything from what we’ve heard about them to how often they blink.”

Small factors can change the way someone views you. A lack of eye contact may make you appear dishonest. Constantly checking your phone can make you seem disinterested. So, how can you make the most of a situation where you’re thrown together with someone you don’t know? Starr’s advice: “Give people a reason to trust and value you.”

Here are some of the key factors in first impressions:

  • Appearance
  • Manners
  • Body language
  • Conversation
  • Attentiveness

Back to that co-worker in the elevator …. You’re tidy. You hold the door for them. You smile. You make eye contact. You introduce yourself: “Hi, I’m Brenda. I’m new. I work in marketing.” They will likely respond with the same information about themselves. As they reach their floor, shake their hand, repeat their name and say, “It was nice to meet you, Robin.” If the ride is longer than that, you could mention a recent company event. You could ask a question about their department. You could ask how long they’ve been with the company.

How hard is this really?

Now, let’s up the ante … it’s the CEO in the elevator with you. You’ve been with the company a few months. You recognize her, but you’re not sure she recognizes you. You smile. You make eye contact. You say, “Hi, how’s your Monday going?” She responds with a quick, “Fine, and you?” Here’s your chance to make a little small talk. “It’s good. Just taking a breather from this month’s (task). I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Brenda. I work in the marketing department with (your boss).”   Elevator ride ends …  You say, “Nice chatting with you, Barbara.” Other topics you could mention: A speech she gave that you watched, a company event you attended and liked, an email about something new. “I’m really excited about the work we’re going to be doing with ….” or “I had a chance to check out the new video you posted to the Web site and really enjoyed it ….” Or “I totally loved that last company event. It seemed like everyone was having a wonderful time.”

Small talk leads the way to more meaningful conversations. It’s a key component in making a good first impression and the first step to friendship or a solid business relationship. Starr suggests bringing up shared social connections … shared activities, mutual acquaintances or connections … all with a SMILE.  Here are a few additional tips for making small talk:

  • Be willing to start the conversation. Chances are you’re both a little nervous.
  • Keep your comments positive. No one wants to be approached by a complainer or someone who’s talking bad about another person or the company.
  • Listen and focus on the person (not your phone). Make eye contact and listen completely. This will help the conversation bloom in a more natural way. Allow the other person to speak more than you do.
  • Use his or her name
  • Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions. “What do you do?” is not the most interesting way to begin.
  • Don’t give yes/no answers if you’re asked a question, even if it’s a yes/no question. Expand on your answer so you’re not putting all the conversation pressure on the other person.

Every business relationship begins with a first impression. So think about the impression you want to make. Our brains are primitive (and fast). So, your goal is to make it OK for the person to get close to you.

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