The power of ‘small talk’: Why it’s a better sales tactic than a hard sell

- February 21, 2023 4 MIN READ
Two women having a conversation with takeaway coffee

Small talk doesn’t come easy to everyone, yet it’s an essential part of doing business, particularly for B2B businesses. Why? Because the art of small talk in conversation is a far better sales tactic than a hard sell. Copywriter and small business owner Tom Valcanis explains why.

In defence of networking small talk

Small talk. To some, it makes their palms clammy and their face scrunch up into a sour ball. What are we, airheads, or professionals? What a waste of time, right?

“Can’t we just get to the point?” some may say about networking. “Hand out our business cards, lay out our products or services, and walk out with new deals?”

Well, sure you can. If you want to go down as a creepy, predatory salesperson. That’s not just my opinion – that’s hundreds of years of communication rules being broken. When you try the hard sell on people you’ve never met, the common reaction is: Who is this person, and why are they here?

The most successful networkers seem to ‘work a room’ without effort. Best of all, they seldom ever sell you anything. At least, not straight away.

Despite our loathing of small talk, it’s actually necessary as a social lubricant. In fact, it’s the first step towards establishing trust.

Child whispering secret in little girl's ear

The function of small talk

Networking among peers is often about demonstrating your value in the business-to-business marketplace. You can help me streamline my accounting? That’s great. I can help write your website content. Fantastic! You can massage my feet after a long day tending bar? Book me in tomorrow! To get to that point of trust, we actually need small talk.

Former U.S. Senator, English professor and general semanticist Samuel I. Hayakawa wrote in his landmark text, Language in Thought and Action, that ‘small talk’ holds value by establishing and maintaining social cohesion.

“Sometimes we talk simply for the sake of hearing ourselves talk,” he wrote. “That is, for the same reason that we play golf or dance. The activity gives us a pleasant sense of being alive.”

If we only talked among ourselves for the purposeful and meaningful transmission of information, we wouldn’t have a ‘real’ reason to talk to anyone, at all. So why do we do it? Hayakawa explains:

“The purpose of talk is not the communication of information, as the symbols used would seem to imply, but the establishment of communion.”

To best establish this communion, he says we “are careful to select subjects about which agreement is immediately possible.”

Hence, we talk about the state of the weather – it’s something our conversation partner can both observe and agree upon instantaneously.

Here’s another example of how small talk can defuse even the tensest of situations.

historic steam train

Advanced communion: the enemy at the station

Professor Hayakawa, as you may have guessed from his name, was of Japanese extraction and appeared as such. This was despite being born in Canada and naturalised in the United States.

When Imperial Japan’s military attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, all Japanese were declared enemies of the state. Spies, the public was told, might lurk behind every corner.

In the winter of 1942, while waiting for a train in Wisconsin, where temperatures often plunge below freezing, many waiting passengers were eyeing Hayakawa with suspicion. Nearby, he saw a man, a woman, and a small child taking glances at him and muttering to one another. He remarked to them that “it is too bad that a train should be late on such a cold night.”

The husband in the trio agreed. Hayakawa also went on to say “it would be especially difficult to travel with a small child in winter when train schedules were so unpredictable.”

Again, agreement. After some more back and forth about the weather and trains, the man asked if he though Japan had any capability of winning the war. He said, “your guess is as good as mine.”

When they lowered their guards, they inquired about Mr. Hayakawa’s family – if they were living abroad. He said they were, and he couldn’t even hear from them. They sympathised.

Before long, the couple invited him to their home – and the station relaxed in kind. These red-blooded American patriots, almost at the ready to turn in Hayakawa to their local internment camp (yes, an unfortunate part of American and Australian history) were now regarding Samuel as a friend. They could trust him now. 

Now, business networking is seldom that dramatic. But all this shows small talk not only has a function but is vital for interpersonal communication.

However, the fact you are attending an event for the same reason everyone else is gives you an opening to establish communion. All you have to do is observe and pick something you both agree on and you’re already on your way to creating lasting friendships instead of quick ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ sales.

Because as we all know – business is all about fostering relationships first. Small talk, despite our hatred of it, is the foundation upon which all relationships are built.

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Now read this:

Four outdated sales styles you definitely need to kick to the curb

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

    'Flying Solo opened up so many doors for us - I honestly don't know where I'd be without it"