Talent Acquisition

How Small Talk Can Win Or Lose You Clients

Dog Walking, Art & Yorkshire Cricket…

Over the years I’ve found certain ways to mitigate those awkward opening small talk exchanges that occur when we meet new clients for the first time. One simple and obvious way is by doing some basic company research before hand so I can comment on recent news etc. Another is to look up the contact’s Linkedin profile and acquaint myself with their career history or what updates they have recently shared. Even better if they have a blog or twitter account as this is manna from heaven for finding something to talk about.

Another way I sometimes break the ice is by commenting upon interesting items in the room as way to begin a conversation and build rapport. Last year this methodology worked for me very effectively twice in a row but the third time it got me in to one of those horrible hope-the-ground-swallows me moments. Here’s what happened.

Meeting number one took place with a HR Director who I noticed had a considerable amount of photos of a dog on her shelves. As we’d just got our first family dog and the novelty of cold rainy walks before bedtime hadn’t worn off yet this was a great subject to start chatting about. Pretty soon we were swapping doggy owner tips and anecdotes.

Meeting number two was with a CEO of major financial services company and his office was festooned with works of art that were not the usual corporate flat print types. Luckily I was on familiar ground with this subject as I studied History of Art at university. Commenting upon his Barbara Hepworths got me in to a great conversation with the CEO and it turned out he too had a keen interest in this area and his wife and daughters were all striving artists and collectors.

Meeting number three was where my small talk strategy all went wrong. This meeting was with the inimitable millionaire Yorkshireman Colin Graves. At the time Colin was the owner of Costcutter, the supermarket chain he started in 1986 and later sold in 2012, and he was also Chairman of Yorkshire Cricket Club.

Naturally an obvious opening gambit was to discuss the fortunes of that famous cricket club that is so dear to every true Yorkshireman’s heart: “Hello Colin, I see from all the photographs that cricket is an important part of your life. How’s your season been?”

What followed was a silence I can only describe as deafening. Mr Graves fixed me with a stare that would perhaps have even quailed Sir Geoff of Boycott OBE in his crease during his pomp and boomed back – “Bloody crap! Bloody Lancashire won the bloody championship; whilst we were bloody relegated!”

I have never felt like such stupid southerner trespassing on God’s own county. Needless to say the rest of meeting following this opening small talk didn’t really go well and I’ve not been asked back.

Moral of the story? Don’t try to be too clever by half, always do your research before a meeting and avoid attempting to wing-it about subjects you know little about; especially when it’s discussing cricket with a Yorkshireman.

Related: How to Start Conversations with Strangers in a Natural Way

By Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a Man of Kent now living in York with two kids and with another in the oven. He lives in a bombsite and is working the NHS Leadership Academy to support Trusts recruiting at board level. You can find him on Linkedin, Twitter - @robmwright or in the kitchen at parties.