How small talk can win you big business

Updated: Mar 9

Richard Pooley



A large bonus please to whoever is the public relations person at BPP University’s Law School in Leeds. What do you mean, you have not heard of this prestigious seat of learning? Actually, neither had I until last week. It’s an American-owned private university, which in 2007 became the first publicly-owned company in the UK to be allowed to award degrees. Perhaps because British education journalists are as out of touch as I am, the new module that BPPU’s Leeds Law School has just launched was universally greeted by the UK media with derision. The law students are going to be taught “the art of ‘business small talk’ to better prepare trainee lawyers for the world of work.” Cue cod course descriptions and mockery of Generation Snowflake.

If there is to be mockery it should be of the title of Jonny Hurst, head of outreach and student recruitment at BPP University. What he said last week, however, was no laughing matter: “… junior lawyers are expected to start working in a legal environment able to chat easily with strangers before a meeting begins properly...The ability to have good conversations with colleagues and clients marks out the future partners. In most cases no-one has taught them how to do it.”

Oldies like me may scoff at the notion that anyone needs to be taught how to chat but we were not brought up with a sleek oblong of metal and plastic apparently glued to our palms. BPPU has done its research: “44% of 18-24 year olds feel more comfortable communicating over digital devices with people they don’t know than speaking face-to-face.” Moreover, us oldies are not nearly as good at small talk as we think we are. In my forty years of experience as an international salesman, negotiator and management trainer, I have seen at first hand how effective it can be in winning business if deployed in the right way.

It all reminds me of the media reaction to a new course my training company launched in 2005. It was entitled Offshore English and was designed to help British and American businesspeople speak and write English in a way which could be understood by clients and colleagues whose first language was not English. “What?! Teach the English to speak English?”

In an interview with me on CNN, Richard Quest ridiculed the idea that foreigners could not understand Brits speaking English, showing as he did so that he badly needed the course himself. No matter. We got the publicity we wanted. And several European and Japanese companies asked us to teach their British and American staff to speak English in a way which was comprehensible to non-native English speakers.

Mind you those Offshore English courses were never more than a day long. If I were designing BPPU’s Business Small Talk module, I would keep it short too. What’s important is to get the law students to understand why small talk can be so useful in winning business. What, when and how to say stuff will follow naturally once you’ve worked out why in any particular meeting small talk will give you an edge.

The reason usually given for becoming a good small talker in business, and the one given by Mr Hurst and his colleagues, is that it helps to build rapport with those you are meeting. Good relationships lead to good business. That’s true to an extent, especially in countries where the rule of law is not as strong as it is in the UK. People want to know they can trust you and hence see a personal relationship with you as vital. But the most important reason for spending time on small talk before a meeting gets into the nitty-gritty of business, is the information it can give you.

However, I have learned the hard way that not all cultures like small talk at the start of a meeting. My own enthusiasm for it has got me into trouble several times. I once flew into New York after a week of sales in Tokyo. Mentally I had not left Japan where they love small talk (as long as it is conducted in Japanese or through an interpreter). I met a senior American manager at the US subsidiary of Nomura Securities, our biggest client at that time in Japan. After four or five minutes of me asking him what it was like working for a foreign company, the kind of question which yields useful information in many other countries, he looked at his watch and asked me if we were ever going to get down to business. He probably thought I was a head office spy. No business came my way after that sales call. In general in the US, especially in the north-east, small talk is considered a waste of time. And, as we know, time is money.

A lawyer at Statoil in Stavanger accused me of being “dishonest” for wishing to indulge in small talk. “You are not really interested in what I do outside work; so why do you Brits ask this kind of question?” It was one of my first sales trips in the Nordic and Baltic region. I gradually learned that Scandinavians, Finns, Estonians and Latvians are only too happy to tell you what they do outside work and love small talk. But naked, with a bottle of beer, in the room outside the sauna. And they, in turn, use the information they have gleaned about you and your company when negotiating with you the next day. As a Swedish manager at Ericsson told me: “We feel it’s somehow corrupt if you are trying to be too friendly in the formal business meeting.”

If you want to get useful information during small talk, it’s important that the other side talk much more than you do. You need to ask them the right questions. If it’s an online meeting, the norm in this Time of Covid, do some research beforehand. Go to the Press section of their website and see what they have recently been trumpeting about themselves. Ask them about it. You’ll learn how much they know about their own company, what they think about it, where they are placing their investment bets.

A tip if you’re meeting someone for the first time from China or Japan, whether online or in the flesh: ask them how they wish to be addressed and get them to explain the characters that make up their name. Not only are they delighted that a laowai or gaijin is keen to get the right order (family name-given name) and correct pronunciation (vital and hard in Mandarin, less important and easier in Japanese) but it can lead to a fascinating discussion about what a particular character means (it can often mean more than one thing). The whole process, lasting just a few minutes, marks you out as an unusual foreigner: someone who wants to do the right thing and wants to learn stuff; someone, in other words, who it might be worth doing business with.

Indeed, whenever operating outside your own country I find there is always one sure way of both creating a warm atmosphere and learning new things: ask them to explain some cultural behaviour you have observed. This can work just as well in a neighbouring country as somewhere more exotic. Even after five years living full-time as a British expat in France, I was asking French businesspeople to explain some bit of Gallic behaviour I had recently come across. Everybody thinks they are experts on their own culture and will love you for letting them tell you about it (even if you know about it already). It’s amazing how often this subject leads back to something going on in their workplace. The first big contract I won in Japan was with Sony. Luckily the Japanese manager I was dealing with spoke good English. So, when I, a new arrival in his country, asked him to explain one or two things about Japanese business culture, he was delighted to become my guide. We soon discovered a mutual love of history too. He was not the person my company normally dealt with but he became our salesman inside Sony and within a few months of arriving in Japan I had secured a training contract worth initially several million yen (and much more over subsequent years).

I have sometimes divulged information during small talk which has been used against me. I’ve never forgotten a training and consultancy fee negotiation in Seoul in which, during the small talk, I praised the 5-star hotel I was staying in. I had hoped that the flattery and sign of my status would impress my Korean client. I felt an idiot when the fact that I had booked into an expensive hotel was used against me as a reason why my company’s fees were too high.

Two years ago I had a meeting in London with a TV production company. They wanted to come to a trademark and consultancy agreement with the literary estate I run. I had already discussed the project – a TV series based on the stories of a once-famous fictional character – with an executive producer and a scriptwriter. So, it didn’t take long to come to a provisional agreement. However their lawyer, let’s call him K, had been too ill to attend. We agreed that I would contact him and introduce him to our UK lawyer. The two would then draft a contract. I rang K, an affable chap who plied me with questions about the estate, the stories and why I loved them so much and was so keen for them to be turned into a TV series. I had never encountered a lawyer who wanted to find out about me and what I did and thought. A week or so later I spoke to our UK lawyer. How was the negotiation going? I could hear her smiling. “Fine. They want to license two of our trademarks. And he’s agreed to a better consultancy deal than I expected. It seems you won’t be the usual consultant from a literary estate - getting in the way of the film crew, trying to censor the script, unable to offer practical advice. So, I’ve been able to get you more days at a higher than average daily fee.”

Maybe I should recommend K to the people at BPP University’s Law School. He’s a lawyer who knows how and why to small talk.

117 views