Ask Esther…I struggle to turn small talk into big business!

Ask Esther

Esther Stanhope is an international confidence speaker and communications expert.

A former BBC producer she’s rubbed shoulders with the likes of Madonna, George Clooney, and many global leaders.

She now helps talented women in business, like you, to speak up in meetings and conferences, get their voice heard and radiate charisma, confidence & gravitas.

If you have any questions for Esther about the way you come across in business, as a leader or when you’re chairing a meeting, fire away.  Ask anything.

Email; [email protected].

Dear Esther,

Thank for your excellent advice so far.


Next month I have been invited to a lunch and breakfast with various senior managers from another location.  While I am comfortable initiating small talk, I am less confident taking the conversation any further.  I struggle when it comes to moving on to a more ‘meaningful conversation’ where we are actually talking about work.  Sometimes I worry they walk away just thinking ‘that was a nice chat’.

Would you have any tips for that please?

Tola, JPMorgan

Hello Tola

Thanks for your email about wanting tips for your senior managers’ meetings!

Hey, you are not alone, most people find the whole business of converting small talk into meaningful conversations really tricky.

You need to have a lot of confidence to effortlessly steer the conversation into a relevant business ‘chat’.

First of all, a funny story about small talk…

I remember one client of mine in the FS sector was from one of the big four accountancy firms and she confided in me that she secretly hated having to ‘make conversation’ in business.

She was from Russia and told me she couldn’t understand why British people always wanted to do this ‘small talk’.  She was told to ask questions because ‘that’s how you get to know someone’.

She made me laugh one day because she asked me “Why do people always want to know my personal details?”

I wondered what she meant by ‘personal details’ so I asked her what people had been asking her.

“They always ask me, where do you live?”

I explained that people like to ‘make conversation’ and they don’t really want to get personal, they just want to be friendly.

Then I asked her, “Why? Where do you live?” and she replied

“In Holborn, London”

“Oh,” I said, “Right near your office.”

She looked at me with frustration “That’s what everybody tells me.”

I reassured her that she had merely discovered ‘small talk’.   It’s a way of connecting with people.

She did admit to me that she had been ‘interrogating’ her business connections rather than making polite conversation, so she now asks people “Where do you live?” and now she finds interesting personal anecdotes to add to the discussion.

The tip here is to make polite conversation, listen, contribute and don’t worry too much about moving it on at first.   This is the first step in a business relationship, rather like a date, you don’t want too much too soon.

You wouldn’t say “fancy a snog?” when you first meet someone!  Too much too soon as a turnoff.

My top 3 tips in being good at business conversations:

An excellent outcome to small talk….

Don’t put pressure on yourself to ‘move the conversation on’ to business too quickly.  The best outcome to small talk is sometimes “let’s meet for a coffee”.  A future one to one informal coffee chat is much more valuable than a conversation right there and then. You want the person to know you, like you and trust you before they feel they can do business with you or talk about more ‘meaningful’ outcomes.

Keep the conversation flowing….

The best way to keep a conversation flowing is to be a brilliant host (I learnt this from all my years producing live radio shows at the BBC).

Ask good open questions about them, keep it simple at first. For example, ask about where their office is, and if they like the location, their commute to work or travel arrangements.  If you want to keep the subject around work, it’s always good to talk about how much they like their department or what would they like to change about it.  This is simple and obvious stuff, but it’s a natural conversation starter that flows effortlessly into the subject of their business.

Listen listen listen for clues!

Careful not to ‘interrogate’ (like my lovely Russian client) and make sure you also contribute to the conversation too by listening out for clues.  Every single thing they say is a clue into their mindset and their world.  In order to win people over and create good meaningful business relationships, you need to figure out where they are coming from and what their attitude is.  Getting them to talk about themselves; their issues, challenges and ideas to change in future, is the perfect way to move your business relationship to the next level.

Dare I use the buzz words beginning with T & A?  The aim is to become their “trusted advisor!”  Being an excellent listener will help you achieve this.

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