How To Work a Room® | Author / SpeakerHire Susan

What Do I Say Next? Book Excerpt

Chapter 1
Schmooze Or Lose: Why We Need Conversation To Succeed


“To what skill do you most attribute your success?”

I asked this question of all the successful people I interviewed for this book. Their #1 answer was: the ability to converse!

If we want to be successful, we don’t get to choose whether or not to develop and enhance our conversational prowess. Schmooze or Lose is the rule for both personal and professional success.

Formal research from Harvard to Stanford and places in between supports my informal findings that the ability to converse and communicate is a key factor in success. A survey of managers sponsored by the National Association of Colleges and Employees rated “oral communication skills” as the most important.

As corporations continue to merge and jobs disappear, we need conversation and communication more than ever before. Networks of loyal customers and relationships become pivotal. We establish, develop, and nurture those relationships by our actions, but also by our exchanges and our conversation.

Pay Attention is the watchword for the next millennium. Pay attention to projects, to details, to trends, and most of all to people.

Unequivocal Equation

In the early 1990’s, Dr. Thomas Harrell, Professor Emeritus of Business at Stanford University, studied a group of MBAs a decade after their graduation. His goal was to identify the traits of those who were most successful.

He found that grade point average had no bearing on success. The one trait he identified in common among the “successfuls” was their verbal fluency. They were confident conversationalists who could talk to anyone: colleagues, investors, strangers, bosses, or associates. They could speak well in front of audiences, and they were easy to talk to.

The unequivocal equation: Verbal Fluency = Success And Affluency.

Confident Conversation

Conversation is the basis of the communication. It establishes rapport and connects us to our colleagues, clients, cronies, competitors, co-workers, subordinates, superiors, and friends.

Our conversational skills are vital, and they will become even more so in the future. In the late 1980’s, Dr. Nathan Keyfitz, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Harvard, concluded that in the year 2000 most people will be technically adept, but those who succeed will be the “people who can talk to people.”

The confident conversationalists will set themselves apart even more than they do today. Knowing what to say first, and what to say next, moves us to the next step of our careers.

The Quintessential Quiz

In this quiz, there is only one question: Do you like people?

If your answer is yes, you are already ahead of the game. Liking people is the heart of good conversation. If you find people nice, helpful, interesting, or informative — you will want to talk with them. They will know that, and like it. You’ve already connected with them, and scored points.

If you answered no, read on anyway! Once you learn to converse more comfortably and start getting positive responses, you may change your mind. When you feel more confident in conversation, relating to people becomes much easier and more pleasant. That attitude leads to success in both business and personal relationships.

Confidence in your ability to converse makes you a better manager, supervisor, employer and colleague. It’s worth a try! In Oh, God Three, George Burns’s co-star discovers he is God and asks, “Should I pray to you?” Burns gives him the same advice I would give you: “It couldn’t hurt!”

The Soul of the Wit…Less

When Shakespeare wrote “Brevity is the soul of wit,” he did not mean to provide a rationalization for clamming up and not extending ourselves to others under the pretense of being a person “of few words.”

None of us wants to be confused with those who play the tough, hard-to-get “game” of monosyllabic responses. Whatever these people are asked, they respond in cryptic monosyllables — “Yup,” “No,” “Uh,” or “Nuh” — and actually seem to enjoy watching people squirm. We rarely hear anyone speak glowingly of these folks.

Some people sneer at “small talk” and dismiss it as banal or trivial. They take pride in being urgent, bottom-line, get-to-the-point, terse people — people who have “more important things on their mind” than small talk. Some of us are naturally terser than others, but none of us can afford not to be conversant.

When we can’t be bothered to be pleasant, we convey an inflated sense of our own importance — when, in fact, our urgency and gruffness may just mask a lack of confidence. Life and work flow more smoothly when we are comfortable with conversation and know how to make others feel comfortable as well.

Don’t Save Nanoseconds

Other people can’t be bothered with small talk because it’s “a waste of time.” Saving nanoseconds by eliminating connections with people makes no sense at all — in business or in our personal lives.

By the time we leave the planet, we may have saved an hour. Big deal. If we invest those moments in the pleasantries or small talk that establishes rapport, we’ll probably be both happier and richer.

“People do business with people they know, like, and trust,” according to Naisbitt and Aberdeen in Reinventing the Corporation. Conversation, even casual conversation, makes sense. It helps us know our clients, potential clients, colleagues, co-workers, and friends.

When we say we don’t want to waste time with small talk, we suggest that we don’t want to invest time getting a sense of the other person — his interests, her takes on things, or his communication patterns and preferences. It hints that we’re too busy, or to disinterested, to bother with that person.

Small Talk Is Big

Small talk is a way to connect even in situations where “big talk” — murder, war, famine, pestilence, and Papal Edict #123 — may not always be appropriate. Not everyone wants to hear our views on the deadly ebola virus or the latest border skirmish at a museum fund raiser for students of the arts. The big issues are important, but we must know the right time or place for them.

Small talk is the biggest talk we do. It builds, develops, and nurtures relationships. Conversation is how we strengthen the safety net of people who make up our personal and professional networks, our RolodexTM of sources and resources.

Small talk is how we exchange information, preferences, ideas, and opinions on issues. It’s how we break the ice and get a sense of who people are, what they like, and what they are like. And it doesn’t always have to be about “small” subjects. I’ve often seen people getting to know one another by having casual conversations about art, sports, economics, government programs, or health issues.

Small talk is what we do to build to big talk. It is the “schmoozing” (see Glossary) that cements relationships and success.

The Deadly Talkers Society

Conversation requires political savvy. Nancy Shina, president of Millennium Marketing, has found that to be true in her two-decade career in the hospitality industry, where she rose from sales assistant to corporate vice president.

“Conversation is politics. One must be aware of what can or cannot be discussed, should or should not be discussed, and with whom that conversation should or shouldn’t occur. When we think things through and have “schmooze” topics prepared, we are less likely to say the wrong thing to the wrong person.”

“Good conversation is to die for; lousy conversation is to die from.”
— Unknown

The Fishing Trip … Remember to Bait the Hook

The Five P’s can keep you out of the Deadly Talkers Society. Just remember the old army saw: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. It’s a military axiom that applies nicely to our conversation skills.

Conversation is a natural, enjoyable human activity, but it works even better with just a little attention and planning. Bill Newton, CEO of Norcal Insurance, was invited on a three-day fishing trip in Western Canada with five other CEO’s. “I had not known any of the other CEO’s before, but I had read a lot about one of the men whom I wanted to meet who had successfully done something I want our company to do. For the first few days I fished, chatted, and listened. On the third day, I went out on the boat with the guy I wanted to get to know. The day was great and we’ve made plans to continue our dialogue.” That conversation started with boats and bait, but led to business.

Bill Newton was prepared, had an agenda (part of which was catching fish), and did his homework. Fishing was something he had in common with the man he wanted to meet. Their host was another. The conversations move easily to other “fishing holes” (trips), other sports, special interests — and subtly, when appropriate, to business.

Let’s face it. Improving our ability to converse with other human beings helps us get more out of life — more business, more friends, more significant relationships of all kinds. It’s a lesson I learned as a child, when I went with my Dad to paper industry conventions in Miami where I learned to “work” the pool rather than swim in it!

Life is an exchange of energy, and conversation is one of the primary ways we play catch with one another. Those who know how to converse with ease and skill play the game better and have more fun.

What Do I Say Next? Reminders

  • Conversation is an art, not a science.
  • If you like people, you’ve won half the battle for more conversational prowess.
  • The ability to schmooze contributes to personal and professional success.
  • Small talk is the most important talk we can do.