For two weeks I looked forward to a sales appointment. An appointment where I was the buyer, not the provider. My company desperately needed the service being offered and I had high hopes I was going to get a solution to a nagging issue.

Imagine my surprise then when Mark showed up at my office, sat at my table, opened his portfolio and said, “Well, I typically like to just get right into it.” And off he launched into a series of very direct questions he referenced from a checklist in front of him.

As he asked about our revenue, cash flow, etc. I kept thinking, “Really? He’s asking for marriage before a first date!”

Being a sales coach and consultant, I wanted to see where he would take this. How would he earn my trust and establish credibility? And would he think he’d done enough to actually ask for the business?

He sure did! After 25 minutes of collecting data and asking some questions that made me feel outright stupid (which I think was his intent), he told me how the engagement would begin and then said…”You’re a sales consultant, you know what happens next.”

What? Was he serious? (Read to the bottom for my response.)

What Mark skipped in his “let’s get right into it” approach wasn’t the small talk that so many professionals hate; he skipped the smart talk that would have allowed:

  1. Insight into the context of the data he was asking for
  2. How I like to buy
  3. What it would take to earn the business and a “Yes” decision that day
  4. And some valuable advice on his own approach to selling ?

The Mistake of “Getting Right into It”

Professionals, from financial service providers to technical experts, tell me how challenging they find (or how much they hate) the small talk at networking events, conferences, and sales opportunities. When asked why, I’ve heard:

  • It’s so superficial
  • It’s a time waster
  • I don’t want to talk about the weather or sports
  • I don’t know what to say
  • No one likes that anyway
  • It’s easier to just get to the agenda
  • They might go off on a tangent that:
    • I have nothing to contribute to
    • I couldn’t care less about
    • May take too much time and we won’t get to what is important
    • Ends up with one of us “pitching” to the other

It seems there are many reasons NOT to engage in the basic human courtesies that lead to an open and productive information exchange!

Yet, in a productive sales conversation or networking conversation…two people need to engage in an information exchange that achieves an outcome.

And a good conversation involves human engagement…and connection.

How to Stop the Small Talk

If you don’t like small talk, don’t talk small! Instead talk smart. Or rather, “ask smart.”

But first…a hard truth…people won’t care nearly as much about YOU or what you have to say. Instead when you put the focus on them, you’ll be more memorable…and have something to follow-up on.


Here’s How to Make the Smart Talk


1. Focus on your mindset.

Set your sights on engaging with a person or people. It’s about them anyway, not you. Instead of worrying about what you should say, think about what you should learn.

What questions will you ask to get them talking and you listening and learning? Select a couple of “go tos” that are broad enough for the person to respond to. I call these Connection Questions – and if someone gives you a short, curt response, you know they don’t want to talk about it, and instead you can segue into agenda items.

At networking events:

  • How long have you been involved with __________? (the organization, subject, etc.)
  • What have you found most useful so far?
  • What are you looking forward to?

In scheduled sales conversations:

  • How was your travel in?
  • How is your day so far?
  • Here’s the part some people take issue with…chatting about the weather or sports. Surprise! LOTS of people want to talk about weather – or anything that is happening now! Sports, world news, the geography you are in, etc. are common topics for a reason. For example, even though I am not a huge basketball fan, if someone speaking with me last month mentioned the Milwaukee Bucks playoff run, it would have been a good way to connect.

If you talk with people out of your area, look online for recent news. What is happening locally that could be a good connection question?

2. Ask the follow-up questions

Ask follow-up questions that show you are listening and are interested!

  • That’s interesting, tell me more.
  • How did that ________?
  • What’s best (or most interesting) for you about that?

3. Prepare for the human connection

Prepare for the human connection by doing your homework. Who are you meeting with? What are their interests? Who do they know that you know? What is their business? Role? Personal situation?

Googling someone and learning more about them is NOT stalking! It’s research and smartly prepares you to focus on what is important to them from the get-go.

To keep it from being creepy or stalkery – don’t say, “I really liked the green shirt/dress you had on in your photo at the charity event.” Or, “I noticed you have a pretty daughter.”

Instead, use information about what you see with a question they may want to answer! “As I prepared for our conversation, I noticed you are involved in several volunteer organizations, what led to your involvement in ________?”

Or, “To make the most of our time together, I reviewed your background online. It seems we have a common connection, Bob Smith. I’ve known Bob for a long time. How do you connect with him?”

Now, to loop back to the story I began this message with…when Mark told me I should know what to do…I played dumb. And he NEVER asked me for a specific next step. He asked me when I would make a decision … His last question was, “How did I do?” My response, “I have a few suggestions.” He then said, “Well, if we talk again, you can tell me then.”

I quickly escorted him to the door.

If only he would have engaged in some smart talk not just as we got started, but throughout the conversation instead of relying on a generic list of questions to collect the data he thought he needed to collect as fast as possible….he might have understood the context of the situation, the motivators I had for fixing the problem, and the value and next steps that would’ve earned him a new client.



Want more tips for starting conversations and ending with sales? Check out the replay of our recent Webinar The Art to the Start of Sales Conversations.

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