A little story to start things off

My buddy showed up at the 5K bright and early. And by bright and early I mean he stepped out of his car 10 minutes before the start time. My guess was he’d woken up no more than 30 minutes ago. But it wasn’t that big of a deal. The race was just a community three-miler. He got his bib, pinned it on, and loitered a bit until it was time to run. He positioned himself next to me a ways back from the starting line (we let the true runners take the front). The starter said “Go”, and we went.

And my buddy sucked. He got a leg cramp. He had to stop, massage it out, and get back on track. He was dripping sweat. He staggered to the water station. His breathing sounded like a squeaky gate. And he finished at the same time as a nine-year-old wearing a leg cast. And then he complained for the next three days about how much his legs hurt.

The main problem? He never stretched before the race. He just stepped in and ran. And for the whole race, he was off his game. He was uncomfortable. He was unsure of himself. And even after it was over the effects of his performance dogged him. And it could have all been avoided if he had stretched a bit.

The point of that story

That long, probably unnecessary preamble (pre-ramble? Better trademark that… it could catch on. Pre-Ramble®. There… that’s better) is a way of saying the bit of small talk that starts most meetings is like stretching before the main event.

The small talk loosens everyone up, relaxes them, and gets them comfortable so they can hit their meeting-stride so everyone is in tip-top shape when it’s time to get down to business (not that kind of business time! Get your mind out of the gutter!).

And now the point of this article

Small talk, like most everything else, is an art. You can’t just dive into small talk. Well, actually, you can. But the better the small talk, the better the meeting. The trick is to know your audience, know what to talk about, and execute it flawlessly. Oh, and make it look totally natural. For our purposes, we’ll assume the type of meeting is one where your client has come to your office.

It’s important to properly open the small talk, so you need an opening line. The right opener doesn’t steal the show. It just enables the small talk to easily take off. The wrong opener stops the small talk in its tracks, and you’re left with the worst of all situations: the awkward meeting.

Here are a few topics to consider for small talk, and pros and cons for each, and the best way to open a free-flowing conversation, a conversation that should take two to five minutes MAXIMUM:

The weather

Pros: Everybody talks about it.

Cons: No one can do anything about it. Plus if the weather is really nice, it may remind everyone that they’re in a meeting on a perfect day.

The wrong opener: “This rain reminds me of the tears I shed every time I think about how HBO cancelled Carnivàle too soon.”

The right opener: “39 more days of rain like this and I may get a little worried.”

The righter opening: “Some weather, huh?”

The drive in/the flight in

Pros: If they got there, it went well. Safe topic.

Cons: If they’re four hours late to the meeting, it could be a sensitive topic.

The wrong opener: “How was the drive in? Statistically speaking, we’re all going to be in a serious car crash one day.”

The right opener: “How was the drive in?”

The state of their business

Pros: Business is good. We’re all gonna get rich!

Cons: Business may be bad. They won’t admit it, but watch for clues like: They ask if you know any good “bulk shredders”; they spend half the meeting playing lotto scratch-offs; they talk about the SEC, and it’s not college football season.

The wrong opener: “How’s business? Got enough in the bank to pay our fee?”

The right opener: “How’s business?”

Their kids. (People generally love to talk about offspring and show pictures of that offspring, until that offspring is 16).

Pros: Their kids may have achieved something amazing (to a parent this could mean sleeping through the night, getting a scholarship to the best pre-K academy in town, or earning a spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays).

Cons: Their kid is a teenager.

The wrong opening: “Kids. Can’t live with them. And that’s the end of that sentence.”

Another wrong opening: “How’s Billy?” (If the kid’s name is Andrea)

The right opening: “How are the kids? Keeping you busy?”

Note, with some minor adjustments, all this applies to pets, as well

The local sports team:

Pros: Generally everyone is at least a moderate sports fan and will have some local team knowledge

Cons: Your client is from Cleveland.

The wrong opening: “Your team sucks. And their fans suck too. They’re the worst.”

The right opening: “This could be the year for [insert local sports team name here].

However, there are some topics to generally avoid unless they bring it up first.

Politics

Pros: It can lead to a friendly, robust discussion on the issues of the day, where everyone, while not totally agreeing with each other, earns a mutual respect for one another’s opinions.

Cons: This never happens.

Their love life

Pros: It gives someone an opportunity to share the most intimate details of their personal lives, bringing you closer together.

Cons: It gives someone an opportunity to share the most intimate details of their personal lives, bringing you closer together.

Just about anything mentioned in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

A couple final points: The small talk should max out at five minutes. So cleverly segue from the small-talk topic to the point of the meeting. Or flick the lights off and on to quiet the room. Take this advice to heart. Use it wisely, and if all else fails go with: “How are you today?” And not: “How you doin’?”