For starters, a conversation
By Amanda Temple
Special to the Tribune
Reporters have a professional excuse to be blunt. When meeting someone for the first time, they can forgo feigned fascination with the weather and dispense with the small talk faster than you can say “How ‘bout them Bears?”
But not everyone has it so easy and that’s where Debra Fine comes in. She’s a Denver-based small-talk coach and author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Rapport—and Leave a Positive Impression” (Small Talk Publishers, $12.95).
When it comes to social graces, this former engineer is the Baryshnikov of banter. She’s interested, engaged and never forgets the boss’ kids names. And she thinks anyone who wants a promotion, boyfriend, new account, neighborhood friend, baby-sitter, trustworthy mechanic, etc. should follow her lead.
The “small-talk is a big gig” plays well to sales convention crowds, but can you really get to know someone beyond their basic bio with just small talk? To find out, we tried some of Fine’s moves on the master herself.
Q: I’ve got to admit, I’m not a big fan of small talk. I’d rather just come out and say it.
A: Amanda, I used to feel exactly the same way when I was an engineer. We have a lot in common really, engineers and journalists. The only difference is that somehow you journalists are perceived as more glamorous, while engineers are just dorky.
Q: Yes, that’s me, glamorous. So tell me, Debra, what made you change?
A: That’s a good question. I realized I was getting passed up for promotions. I was just as qualified, or even more so, than those who were promoted. But I was hiding in the bathroom at networking events and looking for a way to sneak out, while others were at least introducing themselves to the people doing the promoting.
Q: Hmm, that’s very interesting. From serious engineer seeking refuge in hotel bathrooms to a successful speaker in front of thousands of people – tell me more about how you made that happen.
A: Here’s a funny story for you, Amanda. I was flipping through a catalog for adult-learning classes. I was new to the [Denver] area, single again, my kids didn’t need me around all the time and I needed something to do. But I saw an ad that said ‘teachers needed’ and I needed the extra income.
Q: Oh, yeah, they have those in Chicago. I look through them for fun—learn to flirt, choose wine, balance your checkbook and arrange flowers. I love it.
A: I got a good laugh myself when I saw it in print: ‘small talk instructor needed.’ I remember thinking ‘that’s the stupidest thing ive ever seen.’ But I needed extra income. Amanda, the audition was packed. There were almost 100 people there—some in leotards doing yoga, chefs for Italian cuisine classes, you name it. I had practiced my 10-minute conversation 50 times in the mirror, even wore a dress.
Q: And here you are 10 years later, a professional small-talker, touring the country, teaching others how to look beyond meteorology as the bases of all conversation. When did you realize maybe it wasn’t ‘the stupidest thing’ you’d ever seen?
A: At one of the first classes I taught in Englewood, Colo., when I was getting $8 per person, this nice woman walked up to me. She said, ‘My husband and I have been married for 54 years and were worried that now that were both retired we won’t have anything to say. We’re not so worried anymore.’
Q: That’s a wonderful story. My best friend lives in Englewood, maybe she could take one of your classes. You mentioned you had kids. What do they think about mom small talking for a living?
A: Oh, I have teenagers, 15 and 17, so who knows if they even notice what mom does. No, really, they’re great and I can practice on them.
Q: Practice? What do you mean by that? Tell me more.
A: Well, most parents do what I call the F.B.I. agent interview with their kids. It goes like this: ‘How was your day?’ ‘Good.’ ‘How was football practice?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘Do you have any homework?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, it was great talking to you.’ That’s not a conversation. You’ve got to dig deeper.
Q: Did you remarry and, if so, does he let you “practice” on him?
A: Yes, I did remarry. And small-talking played a part of it. I had a girlfriend who I met by chitchatting, then she set me up on a blind date. Blind dates are really just advanced small talking. You have to start somewhere. Anyway, I’m sorry, I strayed from your question. Steve, that’s my husband, actually encourages the whole ‘digging deeper’ approach. Couples can really get in that, ‘How was your day? Fine’ rut. Small talk can dig you out.
Q: Oh, I know. My fiancé, Robert, is the same way. He always asks about a specific story I’m working on. And he hates when I just give one-word answers.
A: Your fiancé, that’s great. Congratulations. Good for him, is he a reporter too?
Q: Well, he’s an editor. Actually that’s how we met. Oh, my! I’ve forgotten which one is doing the interview here. This isn’t about me.
A: That’s the point, it’s about both of us. See, now I know what to ask you about the next time we talk…your wedding.
Q: Speaking of which, I’ve got to call the travel agent before 7. Do you mind if I call you back with any follow-up questions?
A: Sure, and that’s the perfect exit line for small talk. Leave the conversation by asking permission to have another. You’re pretty good at this.