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Small talk is not so small

small talk cartoonA client of mine is a professional woman from Japan who lives and works in Australia. She has a good job in a cultural organisation and she took me on as a coach because, as she said, “I have problem with my English.”

Well — she really doesn’t. She speaks carefully, grammatically, and is easy to understand After we discussed her situation at work and which areas she felt presented challenges, we realised that she had a harder time with small talk than she did with English grammar: She could easily perform the technical parts of her job, but the social aspects of it baffled her. “I am Japanese,” Yuna (not her name) said. “In my country, we are used to being very polite. We don’t like to talk about ourselves. When I am having lunch with my Australian colleagues, I do not always understand what I should say and what I should not say. And their humour.  . !” She laughed a little and shook her head. “I do not always understand,” she said candidly. “And I know it is important to get along with my colleagues. I am not sure what to do.”

Yuna is right. Success in the workplace is based so much more than on simply how well we do our jobs. People bond over shared humour, shared conversation, and most of it seemingly trivial: small talk.

What is small talk? Malinowski, a famous anthropologist, first wrote about it in 1923.1 Small talk, he said, is talk that binds us together. While the topics that constitute small talk may seem trivial, its real importance lies in its actual function: to forge bonds amongst us.

All work talk and no small talk can be detrimental to your career.

Brett Nelson of Forbes lists six reasons why small talk is very important.2 The first reason he gives: you never know where small talk will take you. It only takes a little investment of your time (and the possibility of a bruised ego) to connect with someone. You never know.

It also makes you feel better, and makes you smarter. (Nelson cites serious research supporting these points.)

Not only that: mastering small talk can make you more productive.

Social scientists from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, have been researching office communication worldwide. Their research has shown that small talk is crucial in forging fruitful ties with colleagues. Without those ties, work does not get done as effectively. 3

 

Yet the sad fact is that many people just hate small talk. They would rather get their teeth pulled than listen to an interchange on Australian footie.

Next time—some tips on how you can become a small talk expert.

I am a coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area who specialises in the communications needs of executives who are non-native speakers of English. I believe in helping people find their stories through great pronunciation, vocal work, storytelling, and active listening.

Remember: “It’s your story. Get it right.”

www.eloquentenglish.com

Citations:

1 Malinowski, B. “The problem of meaning in primitive languages,” in Ogden, C. & Richards, I., The Meaning of Meaning. London” Routledge, 1923.

2http://www.forbes.com/sites/brettnelson/2012/03/30/six-reasons-small-talk-is-very-important-and-how-to-get-better-at-it/#1fd187ab33c4

3http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/centres-and-institutes/language-in-the-workplace/docs/short-articles/ND-LWP-Small-talk-at-work.pdf

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Clarity of Purpose: Have a Clear Voice and Clear Topic to Get your Message Across

Town hall speaker

I live in a medium-size town in Australia, with a population of 16,000. Yesterday I attended a town meeting: a big corporation has been approved to establish a commercial goat farm here—with all its accompanying pollution, health hazards and quality-of-life issues. Town residents are not happy at the prospect, and we all turned up to voice our disapproval. More than 400 people attended.

Being new to the Australian political process, I sat back and listened as the townspeople spoke out passionately about the problems such a farm would create. We then listened to a woman with a Ph.D. in public health discuss the obvious and not-so-obvious health concerns that such a farm could create. She did two things right:

1)      Clear Voice: She had a clear, crisp voice that could be easily heard by everyone in the audience. She did not speak in a monotone, and she carefully emphasized words that she wanted to stress. She enunciated her words and spoke at a moderate pace.

2)      Clear Message: She immediately mentioned her own credentials and how she obtained her data (peer-reviewed journals). She immediately let the audience know what she was going to discuss—and then she delved into the data and discussed it in a way that we could all understand. The information she gave supported her point of view, and we all listened intently and gave her a huge round of applause when she finished. We learnt something that evening.

Then a gentleman discussed the history of this farm and what it intended to do. He made two huge mistakes:

1)      Unclear Voice: He mumbled. Even though he had a mic, people were continually clamoring, “Speak up, mate!” Perversely, I felt better, for I thought that perhaps only I could not understand his very pronounced Australian twang. But no. Even with the mic practically down his throat, he kept the sound in his larynx and never projected it forward. He did not emphasize words; they all came out jumbled.

2)      Unclear Message: As this individual was droning on, talking about the history of the goat farm, its purpose, the jobs it might bring in, the market it would serve, I wondered: Whose side is he on? These statistics were interesting, and they could be used to promote the pro-farm agenda. Well, I thought, so he is representing the goat farm. Turned out that he was also opposed to the building of the farm—but his content initially did not make his position clear. (It also did not help that we could only understand one-third of what he was saying.) This gentleman was obviously a well-respected member of the community, and people politely clapped when he finished talking. I glanced at my husband. “Blah-blah-blah,” he mouthed back at me.

Yes.

While the first speaker came armed with a clear voice and a clear message, the second speaker felt he could rely on his amicable relationship with the crowd. As a result, he hadn’t developed his voice, or his message, to meet the needs of the audience. And that was a pity, for he had a lot to say (I think).

Whether you are giving a speech at an academic conference, sales meeting or town-hall meeting, prepare. Make sure your voice and message tell a clear story and give a clear message.

 

I am a coach specialising in the communications needs of non-native English speakers living in the Melbourne and Geelong areas. Email me at arashap@eloquentenglish.com.
www.eloquentenglish.com

Remember: It’s your story. Get it right.”

 

Free Associating: Using active listening to nab the job interview

I’ll start this blog with a story that relates to the last blog I posted, in which I stated that:

  • Learning to listen and discover the other person’s “why” for doing what they do is significant because
  • With this information, you can align your “why” with their “why”. Then the real interaction and mutual benefit can take place.

https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/04/how-to-use-free-association-to-build-a-bridge-in-socialising-and-creating-bonds/

I did this when I was living in Singapore. I had received a call from the assistant of a very high-ranking government official: I was being considered as a public speaking coach for this gentleman; might we be able to discuss this project soon? He would like to visit me in my home.

Eeek. I also discovered that this official was involved in government security; when I told my friends who this person was, they freaked out. “You do realize you are being observed right now,” they said, “and ALL your records are being gone over with a fine-tooth comb.” They then ran away so they wouldn’t be seen in public with me.

Well. I sighed, cleaned my apartment and waited for the meeting. At exactly the appointed time, a black limo glided into view and there was a knock on my door.

A very mild-looking, trim man came in. He was modest in demeanour and soft-spoken—not a scary individual at all. He quickly glanced around the apartment and made a small nod—of approval, I thought. I invited him to sit and offered him tea, which he politely declined.

So what happened? Did he ask me piercing questions about my past, trying to sniff out any infractions I might have committed? Absolutely not. We spoke about Singapore history, the effectiveness of many of its policies, the social problems the country still faced and possible solutions. We did not discuss any business interaction, and I did not rush in to reassure him that I could be a fabulous coach. At the end of the interview he smiled, shook my hand and said, “We’ll be in touch.”

Within a few hours, I had this man as a client.

What happened?

#1 (of course), my apartment was pristinely clean—reflecting the respect due an honoured guest

#2, I demonstrated to him that, though I was an outsider living in Singapore, I was an interested outsider. I knew key things about its history, I spoke with sincere admiration about many of the island’s accomplishments and yet also demonstrated I was not blind to some of the social problems its citizens faced.

#3, I listened carefully to what he said, asked him to clarify some of the things he mentioned, and made it clear that I was honoured to learn from him.

Basically, I let this individual know that I appreciated living in Singapore and was committed to living there and understanding as much about it as I could. I cared about the country and communicated my concern and interest.

 

flowerflower

This government official and I shared this interest. That was enough for him; I got the job.

In the next blog, I’ll discuss how I used active listening to draw the person out. I’ll examine the bits of that conversation and what made me get the gig.

I’m owner of the Melbourne-based company Eloquent English, and I can help you find YOUR story: in a CV, a job interview, a website, annual report or a presentation.

www.eloquentenglish.com

“It’s your story. Get it right.”

How to Use Free Association in Socialising and Creating Bonds. Part 1: Building Bridges

OK, I lie. What I’m about to discuss is not free association per se; that’s a technique in which the patient blurts out any thought associations that come to mind, no matter how seemingly unrelated they may seem to be.

In this blog and the next, I’ll be taking a modified version of this exercise to help you become the best conversationalist you can be. These days, hundreds of people are competing for everyone’s attention: between the Facebook posts and Tweets, how can you get someone to pay attention to YOU and what YOU can offer? It’s not easy to stand above the crowd.

The unfortunate reality is: we are all selfish beasts at heart. When you’re trying to impress someone else, you need to remember that the other person is doubtless thinking: “What’s in it for me? Why should I be interested in this person?”

This harsh reality is especially true when we’re searching for mentors, job leads or are facing a job interview. If you can find out what you and the other person have in common—and can focus on those commonalities—you can create a bond that just might lead to someplace amazing.

Motivational speaker Simon Sinek gave one of the most famous Ted talks of all time, with millions of hits*. His message is a simple one:

We do not make decisions logically. We make decisions with the part of our brain that processes feelings like trust and loyalty. We do not automatically analyse data and then carefully make a decision.

You need to make people get to the “Why”: WHY should they be interested in you? What’s in it for them? Simply listing all the wonderful things you can offer won’t get you anywhere, for everyone does this; your words will become part of the endless chatter and noise that usually lead to Nowheresville. You need to forge a connection between you and the other person: Why do you want to get out of bed in the morning? What passion motivates you? Do you and the other share the same passion? It’s up to YOU to build a bridge that links you and the other through verbal acts of active discovery.

I gave a communications workshop at a scientific organisation in Melbourne the other week, and one of the participants left, saying, “Gee, this is more complex than I thought.”

Yes, that is true. But learning how to (kind of) free associate with the other individual, to get to each other’s similar “why” can result in wonderful things.

Specific techniques will come tomorrow. Stay tuned.

 

I’m owner of the Melbourne-based company Eloquent English, and I can help you find YOUR story: in a CV, a job interview, a website, annual report or a presentation.

www.eloquentenglish.com

“It’s your story. Get it right.”

 

job-interview

 

*https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4

How a Demon Can Use Open-Ended Questions to Destroy (and Create) Empathy as Well

My last blog was on learning how to become a great conversationalist through careful observation and listening, and asking targeted questions. As mentioned, when you do this, you can create a bond with the other person, and through such bonding, many wonderful things may happen. (https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/i-know-the-difference-between-open-ended-and-close-ended-questions-and-i-still-cant-talk-to-strangers-whats-going-on/).

I just finished a book by Michael Faber* called Under the Skin. What a strange book: part science fiction, part horror, part black comedy. After reading it, I realized that it perfectly illustrates how to use open-ended questions to create an empathic bond with others — but in this case, the reason for developing this empathy is so, so wrong.

Potential Spoiler Alert

The main character’s name is Isserley, and when you meet her, she is driving around Scotland, trying to pick up men: she only wants well-muscled, fit specimens. As you continue to read, you realise that there is something not quite right about her: her appearance, the way she talks . . . and that she happily anaesthetises each man after she’s chatted with him. Eventually you realise that she is taking them to her company’s headquarters so her colleagues can kill them for meat. Isserley and her co-workers come from another planet, and they do not recognise us Earthlings as being truly human; they do love munching on our tender flesh, however.

I know—yukkk

Isserley understands that she must select people who do not have family or friends in the area, because their absence would be immediately noted; hence, she drives extremely carefully to avoid police detection and asks all her potential victims targeted, open-ended questions to get them to open up to her so she can ascertain whether they can safely disappear. Forever. Bums, drunkards, students, professionals; she knows how to chat them all up.

Below are two examples of her conversations with potential victims. I have sometimes changed the words to standard English versus the thick Scottish dialect Faber has his characters speak. (I stands for Isserley and V for Victim.)

#1

I: “So what brings you out on the road today?”

V: “Staying at home was driving me crazy.”

I: “In between jobs, then?”

V: “Jobs don’t exist up here. No such fuckin’ thing.”

I: “The government still expects you to look for them though, doesn’t it?”

Go, Isserley. She infers that the guy is out of work because he is staying at home all day. Aha! If this guy isn’t working, maybe he doesn’t have a lot of contacts, so he could be a possible specimen.

#2

I: “What is there for you in Thurso?

V: “I don’t know. Perhaps nothing.”

I: “And if there is nothing?”

V: “I’m going there because I have never been there.”

I: “You’re travelling through the entire country?”

V: “Yes.”

I: “Travelling alone?”

V: “Yes.”

I: “For the first time?”

V: “When I was young I have travelled a lot in Europe with my parents.”

OK, she does ask close-ended questions as well, but Isserley is weaving a web of questions around her victims, just as a spider does to a fly. Very soon, these men find themselves giving away far too much information under her seemingly harmless queries.

Hopefully, you do not want to create empathy for destructive purposes! I hope it can be argued that one can learn from terrible people (or aliens) as well as from wonderful ones . . . and fiction, in the hands of a skilful writer, can illuminate communication better than almost anything.

Next time you pick up a book, start noticing the type conversations the characters have with each other. Doubtless you can learn tons from your own books, as well. Feel free to email me with interesting titles!


*Under the Skin by Michael Faber. New York: Harcourt, 2000.

(In 2014, this book was the inspiration for a film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson.)

 

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com. 

I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

I know the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions—and I still can’t talk to strangers! What’s going on?

I was leading a workshop on Having a Conversation with Australians several weeks ago when a participant stated, “Look, I understand that you’re to ask people open-ended questions in order to have a good conversation. But once I ask this type question and they give a response, I’m like, ‘Uhh . . . OK,’ and then I don’t know what to do.”

Excellent point. First, let’s backtrack a bit.

#1, what’s the issue with open-ended and close-ended questions and socialising? Open-ended questions are just that: a question that requires more than a “yes-or-no” response. Close-ended questions are answered with a single “yes”, “no” or single-word response.

Close-ended question: Did you have a good time at footy yesterday?

A: Yes

Open-ended question: Tell me a little about the footy game you went to over the weekend; I’ve never been to one and am thinking of going to a game.

A: Well, FIRST . . . (and away they go!)

I’m sure you can see how trying to generate open-ended answers will be much more fruitful—and interesting—than simply getting a lot of “Uhh . . . yes . . . no . . . yellow!” as responses. That’s like pulling teeth! Generating extended narratives and (potentially) exciting stories is what you want for the following reasons: 1) The speaker will think YOU are a fabulous conversationalist (even though YOU’RE doing all the listening) and 2) You can really get to know a person this way and create a bond with that person. Which is what you want, whether you are seeking potential mentors, friends or business connections.

Active listening is what it’s all about.

But that workshop participants had a good point. Plying the active listening trade really is easy, but you should know a few tricks in order to become a master.

Let me give you an example. This young participant and I were doing a role play about chatting with someone in a café. The conversation was to be on coffee. (And using the old “come-here-often”? ploy usually falls F.L.A.T.)

P (participant): “So, err, what kind of coffee do you prefer?

M (me): “Black, usually.”

P: “Uhh . . . OK . . .” and she looked at me helplessly and fell out of her role. “See, now I don’t know what to do!”

So, what DO you say, now that you know this person likes black coffee? Lots! Scour your brain. What do you know about black coffee and human beings? Keep being focused on that person. Look at that individual closely and try and make connections between coffee and that individual. It’s not about YOU, it’s about the PERSON YOU’RE TRYIING TO GET TO KNOW. Here are a few options. They may not be witty, but they’ll get the job done and will require a detailed response from the other individual:

  • Black! Wow. You must be a real coffee connoisseur.

     

  • I tried drinking black, but I need milk and sugar. How do you get used to drinking black coffee?

     

  • Are there certain coffee beans that you like more than others?

  • I also love black coffee. Do you think certain types of people that like their coffee black? (This one may be a bit . . . yukky, perhaps like you’re trying to flirt. And if you are—try it!)

  • You look very fit (if the person does look athletic). Do you deliberately drink black coffee as part of your diet? (This response will give the person a compliment, AND demand a more detailed answer—killing two proverbial birds with one stone! Good on ya!)

You might NOT want to puff up your own knowledge and say things such as: “Coffee originated in Ethiopia, you know. . .” and then spout a litany of facts, or say, “I read a report that stated that drinking black coffee can make your hair fall out.” Remember, it’s not about you.

Let’s say this person answered to your #2 question, on getting used to drinking black coffee:

It took me a few years, but now I can’t stand milk or sugar in my coffee; it’s too sweet and rich for me that way.

Now, THERE’S an opening. You could then say:

  • You must be a disciplined person. Are you disciplined in other areas, as well?

  • Let me guess. You don’t consume many sweets, do you?

     

  • Do you eat cheese, then? Cheese has milk in it. I couldn’t live without cheese! (OK, this response DOES have “you” in it, but you are humorously contrasting yourself with that person who you are praising as being very disciplined.)

I hope you see the pattern here. FOCUS ON the person, LISTEN to the person’s response, make connections, actively show your interest in what that person has to say and see where it takes you.

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com. I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

 

 

 

Think of your job interview as a series of stories: Think balloons

Balloons and job interviews? Yes. All my blogs talk about the importance of storytelling and active listening in all forms of communication: “small talk” in the office, in writing science articles, and in acing that job interview.

 

When you have a job interview, you have to “show, not tell.” Never say, “I will work hard.” Blecchhh. SHOW how you work hard—and work BETTER. In other words, if the interviewer asks you a question such as “What is the most significant thing you have ever done?” he or she wants more information than “I successfully meet challenges when I’m faced with them.” Too vague!

You will want to give a story such as the one below (and this actually happened in my own professional life when I was marketing and sales director of a U.S. publishing company):

 

It was September 12 and 13, 2001. The Twin Towers had just crashed. People were devastated, but they also wanted to buy any and all available books about the Twin Towers. It just so happened that my publishing company had recently published such a book. Demand for the title was overwhelming. I was dealing with my own shock of the situation—we all were—yet I was able to work with people in production, customer service, and acquisitions to develop a production plan that would immediately meet the public need, and yet not produce too many so that we would be inundated with returns. It was a horrible time in our history, yet we had a public service to do, and we did it very well. (We ended up with very few books being returned.)

In the story, above, I illustrated how I was able to demonstrate team work, leadership under stress, both professional and emotional. THAT is the kind of story you would want to have at your disposal.

Think of these stories as brightly coloured balloons. Before the job interview, make sure you have created at least three or four of these stories. Frankly, some of the stories could be interchangeable. I could use this story to answer the question “How well do you deal with stress?” as well as “What is the most significant thing you have ever done?” Have a story ready for the following questions:

 

  • How well do you work under stress?
  • How successfully do you meet challenges?
  • What is your strong point?
  • What is your weak point?
  • How do you demonstrate leadership?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?

    (Yes, even for a question like this, have a story ready: this story should demonstrate how you have taken some job or task and made it better / more efficient. That story will show how you are always looking to improve both the work situation and yourself. Then conclude the story by tying it in to the job interview at hand: “So you can see that I am always eager to try new things, to do things in a better way. I look forward to doing this, and perhaps rising within your company.” Even if you’re pretty sure you won’t want to stay with that company, NEVER SAY that . . . always show your creative, innovative side, and how that can benefit the company you’re interested in now.)

 

So. Start thinking of stories.

SHOW, not TELL.

When the time is ripe, pull that red balloon story out of your mind and use it.

Contact me at arashap@eloquentenglish.com

See my website: www.eloquentenglish.com