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Tag Archives: Small Talk for Dummies

Posted on Monday, March 16th, 2015

Spur of the Moment Speech? Here’s Help.

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Google ‘fear of public speaking’ and you will be inundated with articles. Not one of them says run from the room screaming, so you’re out of luck there.

I’ve written more than a few articlesbook chapters, and cheat sheets on ways to overcome what still appears to be the number one phobia in the US.

Dr. Paul L. Witt, assistant professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University, claims making a public presentation is “even scarier than rattlesnakes.”

Ouch.

If you have an engagement coming up and you are nervous about it (and you probably are because everybody is), there are ways to ease the anxiety. Preparing, practicing, exercising, breathing, medication and even donning a pair of lucky socks can help. But what if you are under a surprise attack? What if, as bad luck would have it, you are asked to make a presentation or speech or toast right now?

First, don’t panic. (Don’t you just hate when people say don’t panic? I know, I know. But, really, try not to panic.)

And next, try this:

Take A Deep Breath And Then Take A Few More

Give yourself the gift of oxygen and time, both in equal measure. Remember, you don’t have to jump up and start the song and dance routine right away.
Then:
• Breathe (again)
• Stand up (if necessary – if the situation allows for you to stay in your seat, then do so and be grateful)
• Politely thank the horrible, hateful person who has done this to you
• Take a sip of water
• Smile
• Remind yourself that you know what you are talking about and (no offense) not everyone is going to hang on your every word anyway, so you are not going to die
Now it is time to actually speak, here is a plan:
• Introduce yourself, if necessary
• Do not apologize for yourself with something like I’m not great at public speakingor I am not prepared or I know these pants are too tight but I was running late and I like donuts, because you just set yourself up for criticism or sympathy and neither are great in this scenario
• Reiterate what’s been said so you can get the ball rolling: As Jim (aka Satan) mentioned, we are launching a new product line in May, 2017 and it promises to bring major change to the marketplace

Engage the Three Two One Strategy and Use “We”

Pick three positive points, two potential negatives and finish strong:
Our research shows that 68% of our potential customers will benefit from this product, and that interest is high based on market analysis.
• The marketing team has created a far-reaching marketing and advertising campaign that will incorporate social media, television and print, thus capturing a wide audience
• We’ve looked closely and carefully at the cost analysis and it appears that this product could potentially bring in more than $2 million over the next 18 months
• Our team still has work to do around the production schedule, but our goal is to finalize those details by year-end
• We are still in talks with investors on how and when we can bring this full-circle
• The future looks bright for our company and our customers

Open The Floor For Questions But Be Careful What You Ask For

Questions are a great way to keep the conversation going without having to carry the weight solo. It’s important to open the floor for questions without stepping too far down the rabbit hole, so instead of saying:
Any questions?
Try:
I’m happy to try to answer any questions I can or
Great question and we will be ready to talk more about in November 
• This will project a confident image even if you don’t have the specific answer at the moment

Wrap It Up

State that your time is coming to an end and wrap up the meeting:
We have time for two more questions 
• Thank the audience and that troll Jim for getting you into this nightmare, then smile, hold you head high and mentally pat yourself on the back (not literally, you just made it through a spur-of-the moment speech, don’t embarrass yourself now!) because You. Did. It.

Bring on the rattlesnakes.

 this post originally appeared on The Huffington Post

Posted on Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Say What? What To Say When You Don’t Know What To Say.

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The human heart is a truly amazing mechanism; so hard working and tough under pressure, but oh so easily damaged.

We all have heartbreaks (I can’t even discuss my 7th grade boyfriend saga. A tragedy of epic proportions). Disappointments and suffering and grief and anguish are all part of life. Hooray for us!

We have all heard bad news and immediately gone to that big Rolodex in our head searching, desperately, for the right thing to say. Or we’ve skipped the search and blurted out something clichéd and trite before quickly excusing ourselves to privately negotiate our own foot into our mouth. Or — the worst crime of all — we’ve been faced with bad news and said absolutely nothing.

Neil Rosenthal writes a stellar column in The Denver Post appropriately titled “Relationships.” His January 29th piece highlights the importance of an empathetic response. As Rosenthal points out, a thoughtful response is certainly needed in times of tragedy, but even the day-to-day frustrations that affect us all would benefit from a kind and compassionate acknowledgement.

When dealing with a loss, phrases like: Time heals all wounds or It was his time to go are common. And sort of a cop out. Why? Because they don’t really mean anything to the person who is suffering. They are just words. Words that can leave the listener feeling worse than when they started. Because only words that “honor your feelings of loss and sorrow,” writes Rosenthal, truly honors the emotions around an issue that causes turmoil.

Rosenthal, referencing How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It
written by Pat Love (not kidding) and Steven Stosny, makes a case for how important it is to “step into the puddle” with others. Stepping into the puddle means offering our “heartfelt presence, caring concern and participation” when others need it most. And even when they don’t. By employing the puddle technique to everyday life, communication and connection are bound to improve.

So, how exactly does one ‘step into the puddle’ without getting drenched? By offering statements with a little more meat and a lot less fluff — like this:

When your spouse walks in after a long day of work, it’s temping to pull out the eye roll or the Ha! You think YOUR day was long, well let me just tell you about MY day… instead try saying:
I am so sorry about your day and I am so glad to have you home safe and sound. 

When someone is dealing with a death, resist the He’s in a better place or Call me if you need anything and try This must be really difficult; I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose a sibling. Your brother was one of the funniest men I’ve ever met — I still laugh at the fun we had skiing in Vail. How are you handling everything?

Whatever the situation — death, job loss, hard day at work, tough day at home with children or even the tragedy of a 7th grade break-up, by acknowledging, truly, the heartache of others, we can make a big impact and — just maybe — lessen the blow.

 

This blog was originally posted on The Huffington Post.

 

Posted on Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Back to School: Top Ten Ways To Avoid Flunking the Fall

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It’s here! The school year is back! Some parents may be jumping for joy, especially those dealing with an eye-rolling teen or a bored 8-year-old. And some are white-knuckling it through the emotional turmoil of prepping a college-bound young adult (when did THAT happen — didn’t he just lose his baby teeth and learn how to tie his shoes?) for departure. Speaking from experience, that’s a rough one. Survivable, but rough.

Because the summer usually offers many freedoms — later nights, lazier mornings and space in between to just be a kid — the structure of a fall schedule can be a bit jarring for the under-20 crowd.

And while I am no David Letterman (love you, Dave!), I love a good Top 10 List, so below are the Top 10 Ways to Avoid Flunking the Fall.

1. Back Up Bedtime:

No matter what age your child is, chances are the bedtime hour has vacillated a bit over the past three months. Use these weeks before school to start transitioning into an earlier bedtime and a more structured wake-up routine. Ever try to wake a 15-year-old boy at 6:30 a.m. after a summer of sleeping until lunch? Exactly.

2. Collaborate on Calendars:

Add school and sports events to your calendar now, and share that information with your spouse and any other important people in your life. If your child is old enough to carry a smartphone or iPad, have him update his own calendar. This will encourage him to be responsible for his activities and can be a useful tool for tracking homework deadlines and social engagements. If your child is younger, discuss what each week will look like and create a chart that will help him understand his schedule. If your child can’t read, use stickers (a sticker of a soccer ball on Wednesday, for example).

If your child is leaving for college, talk through their class load, asking open-ended questions on how they foresee accomplishing schoolwork, any part-time work, sports, social and volunteer responsibilities. By talking with your child about prioritizing their time, you are setting them up for success and showing them that accomplishing a myriad of tasks doesn’t happen well without a plan in place.

3. Manage Medical Mayhem:

Make sure your child — no matter what his age — is up-to-date on vaccinations and physical exams. It’s easier to accomplish this task now rather than wait until the day before football practice starts. I speak from experience here. Also, if your child has late starts and early dismissals during the school year (this is a standard in some Colorado districts), schedule future appointments for those chunks of time. It’s much easier to squeeze in a teeth cleaning or eye appointment on those short days than try to do maneuver kids and teens after school when offices are busier and kids are over-booked.

4. Communicate About Communication:

Do you want your college freshman to connect with you daily? Weekly? Via phone? Via text? Via email? Clarify your expectations around this issue now to save headaches and heartaches later. Remember that your college freshman is, for the first time, out on his own. Maybe he doesn’t want to check in with you daily; or fill you in on every last detail of his day and night. Maybe you DO, in fact, want to hear his actual voice once or twice a week and would rather not find out about his life on Facebook. Communicating about communication will alleviate future confusion.

If you are parenting a younger child, carve out time at the end of each day to talk. Avoid asking: “How was school?” unless you are ok with getting a “Fine” in response. “Tell me during your science lab” or “What was the funniest thing that happened today” will get your child talking.

5. Role Play Reality:

Help your child, regardless of age, practice his social graces. Role-play introductions to friends, teachers and parents. Discuss the benefits of a firm handshake, a smile, eye contact and decent posture. Remind him that social media is forever, so think long and hard before posting anything that he wouldn’t want his grandmother or boss to see. Talk about ways to avoid peer pressure when it comes to drinking, drugs, sex, cheating, bullying and gossip.

Help younger children deal with playground issues by teaching them about walking away or stating clearly: “I don’t like it when you push me.” Remind kids of all ages that they have what it takes to handle tricky situations, but they can always come to you or another trusted adult if needed.

6. Find a Friend:

Taking your child to college? Make some inroads with the parents of their dorm-mate or floor resident advisor so you have another contact should you need it. Make conversation with other incoming freshmen and their parents without overdoing it; it’s not a popularity contest but it is a chance to make some connections for both you and your child.

For younger children, invite a classmate over to play before school starts and don’t skip on Meet the Teacher night, even if your child has been going to the same school for years. Having familiar faces to search out is so helpful, no matter your age. Let’s be honest, even adults look for someone they know when walking into a party or business function. Give this gift to your child and alleviate a bit of stress for everyone.

7. Navigate the Necessities:

Handle haircuts, new shoes, lunch boxes, school supplies, clothes and toiletries now. Let your child have a say in what he wants to wear on a regular basis and pick your rules sparingly. Forcing a kid to wear collared shirts and khakis while the rest of the pack is in sport shorts and sweatshirts are, um, mean. Agree that you have final say on special occasions (picture day, school plays, etc.). Don’t micro-manage things like coats and gloves. Kids figure out pretty quickly that standing at the bus stop in a t-shirt is pretty miserable when it 14 degrees outside.

For the college-bound, stores likeBed Bath & Beyond will allow you to shop for items in your home state and pick them up in another state, making packing the car that much easier. As for clothes, remind your child that less is more in a tiny space — and that you can always send needed items if necessary. Or use this as a way to entice them home more often…all’s fair in love and empty nesting.

8. Make It Personal:

For the shorter set, add notes to their lunch boxes or color on their breakfast napkins — anything that lets them know you miss them and think about them and encourage them. I’ve seen blogs about cutting sandwiches and fruit into fun shapes to make little kids smile. And while that’s such a cute idea, we both know it won’t happen for long. But a quick “Good luck with spelling” on a sticky will do the trick.

For those heading out of the house for college, send a care package! Then send another one! And another one! Kids love getting mail and treats, no matter how cool they are. I would jump for joy if I opened my mailbox and found a box filled with cookies, new magazines and a $20 bill, wouldn’t you?

9. Make It Easy:

Hoping your freshman will send letters to you? His grandparents? His siblings? Provide him with a stack of funny cards and other various stationary along with a book of stamps and a list of addresses — and then just hope for the best. Offer a gentle reminder about how HAPPY his grandparents would be to receive a handwritten note from him. Remind him that his grandparents have been putting money in his college fund since birth.

10. Read My Book or Have Your Teen Read My Book or Read My Book Out Loud to Your Teen:

I’m kidding on the last one – do not read this book out loud to your teen because then your teen will hate us both.

This is not even a plug for you to BUY the book. I swear. I don’t care if you get it from the library or page through it at the bookstore. Really. But Beyond Texting: The Fine Art of Face-to-Face Communication for Teenagers was written for a reason – to help children and young adults navigate human interaction, balance real life in a digital world, and use technology as a tool instead of a crutch.

 

Posted on Friday, April 4th, 2014

Wrong Name Can Be A Venti Problem

 

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Dear Debra:

I’ve been going to the same coffee shop every weekday for two years and the woman behind the counter knows me. She is always saying hello and asking about my dog and my fiancé and she is lovely. She sees me and says Jen! Love those shoes! Come on over here and let me see them! But my name is Nicole. I never corrected her — for two years! Now I don’t know what to do. Do I tell her my name is Nicole or just play along? Help!

Nicole/Jen In Chicago

Dear Nicole/Jen:

Well, you’ve gotten yourself into some hot water here and now the issue continues to percolate, hmm? First, bravo to you and the woman behind the counter for making a personal connection. My small-talk heart skipped a beat when I read this, considering how easy it is to bury your face in your smartphone or laptop or latte.

If I were you, I would correct her now and use humor to do so:
So, I’ve always wanted to be a ‘Jen’ which is the reason I answer to that name when you call — but my name is actually Nicole. I asked my parents to change it to Jen, as it sounds so much better, but they are sort of stuck on Nicole.

Be brave and make the switch now because life is funny and it is more than likely that the moment you resolve to just become Jen forever, someone will walk up to you in that coffee shop, in front of that woman, and exclaim NICOLE! Hey — NICOLE! NICOLE? Is that you? And then you and the coffee-lady-with-the-big-heart-and-the-wrong-name are going to have to end your frothy friendship over something that was once a small order (“tall” in coffee speak) has now grown into a grande or even venti problem.

Posted on Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Three Steps to Savvy Sales

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Everything in life is really sales, isn’t it? Even if you aren’t technically selling something, you are selling something. You are selling a product, your services, yourself.

You’re questioning my logic right now, I can feel it, but think about it for a moment. The ads on television, social media, the radio and the newspaper are there for a reason — to get you to buy whatever it is they’ve got. It could be a ticket to a game, a trip to a restaurant, a better car, a new cable company, a leaner physique, shinier hair, a different credit card carrier or airline of choice. Sales and more sales. All of it.

But even a first date is really a sales pitch. As is persuading a toddler to eat carrots, a teenager to put down the phone, an employee to finish a report and a husband to stop FOR THE LOVE OF GOD telling that same, long story that you have heard a thousand times. Life is really one gigantic sales pitch. Sigh.

So how do you get your customers to buy that car, that facelift, that training seminar? How do you get the three-year-old to power through a plate of vegetables and Miss Right to say “yes!” to whatever you happen to be suggesting (which is really none of my business but I am rooting for you anyway)? By building a relationship, of course.

Relationship-building in business is nothing new. After all, it’s why Coca-Cola is and always will be Coca-Cola. They’ve managed to appeal to the masses while making us each feel special. They’ve inserted themselves into American history and sold us on nostalgia and patriotism and even Santa Claus. It’s quite a feat. But what Coca-Cola, like Walt Disney or Steve Jobs or that first guy that was selling OxyClean understands — granted, on a different level than us — is that you must know who your customers are and what they need. Or want. Or think they need. Or think they want. Follow me?

I know that there is an incredible amount of information out there on customer care, and trying to synthesize it all here would be impossible. Still, there are simple strategies that anyone, even the non-Steve-Jobs of us, can adopt. Here are my favorites:

Be Normal:
It’s harder than it seems. There are a lot of not normal people out there, and we’ve all met them. The slick sales guy selling snake oil still exists, he’s just morphed into a telemarketer or a multi-level marketing guru. The best way to earn your customers’ goodwill is to present yourself as a humble, respectful individual. I don’t mean present yourself as that person, actually be that person. By being human and politely inquisitive, you put customers and clients at ease; and as the saying goes, “people buy from people they like.”

Be Clear:
What makes sense to you does not always make sense to someone else. You, after all, are an expert in your field. If your customer were an expert in your field, he or she would not be a (potential) customer, he would be a colleague or a competitor, or even your boss! Explain information from the customer point of view and watch for that look of understanding before plowing ahead. If you notice signs of confusion or something that resembles a stroke, slow down and ask if there is a need for clarification. This is not the time to show off, using all the acronyms and jargon and technical terms. Can’t stop yourself? Go back to the Be Normal step and review.

Be Savvy:
Asking a potential customer a good question can offer a great amount of feedback. Do your research prior to meeting with a new customer, and learn as much as you can about them and their business. You are wasting their time (and yours) if you don’t take this crucial step. Plus, it provides a great opportunity for small talk, of which I am a fan, as you know. Open ended questions, such as “How can I help?” sound almost too simple, but they work. Once you have a rapport going, provide customers with specific information on what your product or service does, but emphasize how it can help THEM, instead of simply listing all the bells and whistles: Will your services increase productivity or revenue? Are you a more-reliable, cost-effective resource? The more you understand a customer’s particular goals, the more likely you are to provide them with a solution to their problem, instead of just a quick fix.

Customer care is a huge topic, but the steps to success are really quite simple. Be forthright and honest. Tell them the truth in an attractive way, without exaggerating. If your product or service is the right fit, and if you approach your customers on their level and keep their goals in mind, you are on your way to building a relationship with a client. That’s almost as good as a trip to Disney.

Posted on Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

How To Win The Gold Medal In Losing

Fine Showing at the Super BowlI don’t know if you heard, but the Denver Broncos lost the Super Bowl. I know, I know, I was shocked too; but at least I got to be shocked in person, because I was actually at the Super Bowl this year. You know that famous painting by Edvard Munch titled, appropriately, The Scream? Now you’ve got the visual of Debra Fine at the game, except I have way more hair and I was wearing way more orange.

I would like to say I handled the loss with grace and aplomb, but I was — you know — disappointed. All Broncos fans were disappointed. We (and, yes, I speak for every single Broncos fan here) never even considered a loss. No one told us. I considered blaming the loss on Joe Namath’s coat, but that seems immature. What did that coatever do to me?

I was with my husband and our children and, as usual, I was, impressed with the good sportsman like conduct we all managed to embody during what some (some = me) have called a bloodbath. You already know my view on booing; but let’s face it — losing is just not as much fun as winning.

So here I am, licking my wounds from the Super Bowl loss while already engrossed in the Olympic games and I am asking myself what, exactly, makes a good loser?

And no matter who you are and what you say, we have all been on the losing side of life. Perhaps you were not given a deserved promotion, asked to the prom by the one guy you actually wanted to go with instead of that Mr. Creepers from chem who asked you two years in a row, chosen for the schoolyard kickball team or voted asAmerica’s Next Top Model (I can’t answer to the last one, but the others, well, let’s just say I get it and leave it at that). How do you overcome the sting of losing? The bigger question — how do you overcome the loss and become a gracious loser?

Earlier this month
I watched the women snowboarders battle it out on the slopes of Sochi and my heart swelled with the obvious rapport between the competitors. Not only were they all engaged in each other’s attempts, they were hugging and high-fiving at the beginning and the end of each run. Even while standing at the bottom of the hill, realizing that the gold had just gone to American Jamie Anderson, Enni Rukajani of Finland and Jenny Jones of Great Britain, now taking home the silver and the bronze respectively, were congratulating Anderson — in a big way. Hugs, smiles, kisses and words of praise. When Sarka Pancochova managed to make her way down the mountain unattended after a major spill that resulted in a cracked helmet and what I can only assume what will be a screaming headache (and hopefully not more), the spectators and competitors alike were rooting her on. Everything was how it should be — kind, gracious and authentic.

It’s hard to know what to say and how to say it when you are in the tornado that comes with loss. Emotions are whirling, reality is setting in and your mind, body and soul are trying to comprehend what just happened.

I’ve had several people approach me over the years about this topic. And, like most parents, I’ve had to patch up the broken spirits of my children when things didn’t turn out the way they had hoped. So we all have experience in losing; but some of us need practice on how to handle it.

Here’s the good news: you are allowed to be totally and utterly disappointed at a loss. That’s normal. If you didn’t feel the pangs that come with defeat, you would not be human which would make you a robot or — worse — dead. So accept the fact that every single person has experienced loss and every single person, except maybe Ghandi, felt upset by that loss. You are free to go home and eat half a sheet cake, or rip out that ugly fireplace or make fun of Joe Namath’s coat, but in the meantime, you get to take this opportunity to congratulate someone else for his or her good fortune. Rule number one when it comes to being a good loser is to keep all negative comments out of the mix and be the first one to approach the winner. Do not hide out in the corner (eating sheet cake or mocking Joe Namath!), square your shoulders, take a breath and walk up to the winner with purpose and pride.

Sound impossible? It’s not. And like someone somewhere said sometime, you can do anything for a minute. Here’s how:

You and a colleague were up for the same promotion and it was just announced that your colleague was awarded the job:

What to say: “Pete! Wow! Congratulations on the promotion.”

What to do: Smile, shake Pete’s hand and excuse yourself. You don’t need to be a hero and soak in Pete’s success; you just need to be gracious and polite. You can go now. Go on. Go get that sheet cake. Skedaddle.

You are sitting at a very expensive fundraising dinner because you are a finalist in a philanthropic award pool; and your name is not called:

What to say: “Beth — congratulations on the win. Your efforts this year have been amazing and it was an honor to be nominated along with you.”

What to do: Send Beth a note later in the week. Send the award committee/event host a note later in the week. Send yourself some flowers.

You are sitting with a bunch of other parents at the Homecoming game when they announce the queen and instead of your daughter, it is that spray-tanned obnoxious cheerleader who, by the way, had lice in the fourth grade.

What to say: “Congratulations, Ann. Jessica must be thrilled.”

What to do: Go find your daughter, hug her, tell her that high school is almost over, and remind her that she never had lice.

Your son does not make the baseball team:

What to say: “I’m sorry, buddy. How are you feeling? I’m proud of you for going out for the team and trying your best.”

What to do: Hug him, tell him that grade school is almost over and soon he’ll be in high school where the homecoming queen won’t give him the time of day and then have a job with the possibility of a promotion and then he will do a lot for the community and will be up for a non-profit award that he won’t get and this loss will just be one of many!! Ok — delete everything after “hug him.” Add in a Dairy Queen run. Call it a day.

In 99 percent of losing scenarios, this recipe stays the same: Be first on the scene, offer a quick but sincere congratulations along with a handshake or hug when appropriate, and move on. To lose is inevitable, but to be a good loser is achievable. So go out there and be the best good loser you can be — gold medal or not — you’ll be happy you did.

 

 

Posted on Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

The Holiday Collection: Breaking In Without Breaking Out in a Cold Sweat

Debra with The Bidens!

 

So by now you know that I recently spent a few days and nights gallivanting around DC with elected officials.

Wait. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? Gallivant may be the wrong word as I am not — and will never be — Rielle Hunter.

But I did spend time at The White House and at Vice President Joe Biden’s private residence and it was and still is unforgettable. Being in the small talk business is a benefit for me because I usually don’t have the panic that others often experience when walking into an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar faces and starting a conversation. For those of you who suffer — and I know many of you do — I remember your pain. Last week’s blog included four simple steps to starting a conversation with a stranger; a little pre-holiday gift to keep you merry and bright. But what happens if you don’t find a singleton in the room? What if everyone is already grouped together and chatting merrily while you are standing alone, feeling foolish?

Breaking in is hard to do, especially when it comes to conversation. You don’t want to continue to stick out like the Lone Ranger without Tonto. You also don’t want to start lurking around like…well…I was going to say Rielle Hunter but that would be in poor taste. So, let’s just say you don’t want to start lurking around.

Not to fret my fellow small-talkers! There are simple, non-lurky ways to find your way into a group conversation. Here’s how:

Fake a seizure.

Kidding — here’s how to do it:

If there is someone specific in the room that you have been hoping to meet and he is engaged in a conversation with another person, wait patiently and then approach the OTHER person, your target’s conversation partner. Politely, ask for the other person’s permission to interrupt:

Hi, I’m Debra Fine. Excuse me for intruding, but I’ve been trying to connect with Bob for weeks. Would you mind if interrupted you both for just a moment?

Most people are gracious enough to agree.

The other option is to tap the shoulder of your intended conversation cohort and state your wishes:

Hi, I am Debra Fine. Excuse me for intruding, but I promised myself to connect with you, Bob, before the evening ends. Please look for me when you have a free moment.

At this point you will either be invited to join the conversation or Bob’s partner will excuse himself and move on (he may have been ready for greener pastures anyway, so double kudos). If neither of these things happens, Bob will know you made an effort and will likely seek you out later.

Attempting to break into a larger group? Try this:

Stand slightly away from the group, but show interest in the speaker while waiting for the group to acknowledge you. They will likely physically shift a bit to allow you into the inner circle.

Ease your way into the conversation by acknowledging that you have been listening. You can do this by nodding your head, smiling, or chuckling at a funny quip that’s been shared.

Look for visual cues that some or all of the group has warmed to you. At that point, you know you’ve been officially welcomed to use your small talk skills like the pro you are. No Rielle Hunter or fake seizures necessary.

Posted on Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Small Talk at The White House (yes – that White House)

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I’m going to a cocktail party at The White House next week. Yes, Debra Fine will be drinking champagne at The White House. Do I sound like I am bragging? I’m not. Well, maybe a smidge. But I am, in a word, thrilled. I have a feeling that Mrs. Obama and I will become lifelong friends and share workout tips, but I digress.

Back to business. While I am elated to be attending two VIP cocktail receptions in the nation’s capital (yes, I will also be at a little soiree with Vice President Joe Biden but didn’t want to rub it in), I know that the holiday cocktail party, whether at the White House or at your neighbor’s house, can cause distress for many of you. How do I know? From you! You’ve told me on Facebook, in Q&A sessions following a keynote speech, in personal emails, even in line at the grocery store! Not to fret, fellow small-talkers, navigating a cocktail reception is not as tough as you think.

Like everything else, there is a beginning, middle, and end.  It makes sense to start with the beginning, and get to the middle and end of a good cocktail party conversation in parts two and three of this series, respectively.

Let’s assume that you’ve got your icebreakers and three or four topics in mind for when a conversation starts happening. You’ve practiced your most winning smile in the privacy of your bathroom mirror, you don’t have any food in your teeth and you still remember your own name. All good things. So you arrive at an event where you know nobody and you wait for someone to approach you, right?

No, no, no. Remember, the holidays are all about giving — so give yourself and someone else the gift of conversation. When you enter a room, look around for others that are standing on their own. You can usually find these folks hovering around the buffet or obsessively checking their phone or standing much too close to a potted plant. These people are nervous and feeling awkward and, because of that, will be your very best listeners because you, savvy small talker that you are, are about to relieve them from feeling completely panicked and self-conscious.  Go you.

Be the first to make eye contact and smile at a stranger.  And if they don’t smile back, I will send you a paperweight from the president’s desk. Don’t ask me how I got it.

Once you’ve established eye contact, introduce yourself and offer a handshake.

Hello, I’m Debra Fine.

If the other person speaks your language, and you don’t receive a handshake and a name in return, I will send you a paperweight from Mrs. Obama’s desk (I believe she uses hers for bicep curls because wow, those arms, but I digress — again.).

Once you receive a name and a handshake, use the other person’s name and one of your icebreakers to get the conversation going. I find a statement/question combination to be the best bet:

It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ken. This is my first visit to the White House inner sanctum and it’s more than I imagined! What’s your history with visiting the White House?

Notice I did not pose a yes or no question, because then Ken and I might hit a roadblock. Instead Ken has the chance to either tell me he has never been to the White House, and then we can talk about being newbies to the whole experience; or Ken can tell me he has attended several functions, and then I can ask him about some of the highlights; or Ken can tell me he took his children on the standard White House tour and now I have some insight that Ken is a father and I can take the conversation in that direction. No matter what Ken’s response, the conversational path is lit for me. Let’s pretend that Ken is new, like me:

Isn’t this exciting, Ken? What surprises you most about being here?

The statement/question pattern is effective for starting and continuing conversation, especially if you keep the question open-ended (not a yes/no question). Now Ken and I are on our way to a meaningful exchange and Ken and I are not both standing alone in the middle of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be wined and dined at the White House.

See? It’s as easy as that.

It is.

At the end of the day, there are really four short steps to starting a conversation: • Find an approachable person • Make eye contact • Smile • Offer your name to them and use their name in conversation
Giving the gift of conversation is worthwhile to everyone. True success comes from taking the first step and saying hello. The topic is not nearly as important as the effort. So exercise your conversational muscle and do some heavy lifting when it comes to making small talk, because connecting with another person is even more important than sporting rock-hard biceps. I promise.

Posted on Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Making International Conversation Without An International Incident

             international

Dear Debra,

My partner and I travel often for work and pleasure, and while we are great traveling companions, we disagree on how to converse with the people we meet. When traveling internationally, specifically to poorer countries, is it condescending not to ask your taxi driver if he’s ever been to the U.S. (thus assuming that he does not have the financial means to travel?) — or is it worse to pose the question, when clearly the driver’s financial story seems obvious?

Please know that I am not a snob, nor am I typically a person who just assumes the life experience of those around me, I simply want to do the right thing. Do we appear like two wealthy, disconnected Americans living the high life, or do we level the playing field by asking this question? Interested to hear your take — thank you.

Sincerely,

Traveling Man

 

Dear Traveling,

First, I applaud you both for making small talk while traveling. And, I applaud you for traveling, period, as it opens up a new way of looking at the world.

I understand your dilemma, and I believe there is a balance. Instead of asking a specific question, such as: “Have you ever been to the U.S.?,” try approaching it from the angle of getting to know more about the person, rather than his or her specific vacations. Open-ended questions are the quickest and kindest way to achieve a positive end result.

Saying the cliché: “How are you today?,” is appropriate as long as you really mean it, and are planning to follow-up with a more engaging conversation. For example, jumping into a cab in Chicago and saying: “How are you today?,” is really just you saying hello, a form of greeting. When traveling internationally, asking “How are you?” is an actual question, one that will likely get a response. So, if you are hoping for a conversation in Chicago, “How are you?” won’t work — but if you are shooting for a meaningful exchange in another part of the world, you are in luck.

The key to keeping a conversation going is to dig a little deeper with your phrases and make the exchange about the other person.  Open-ended questions that might work for you and your partner while traveling could include:

• “We are so excited to be in Bali — what brought you here?”

• “What is your favorite thing about living in Bali?”

• “If we were to sample one new dish while in the country, what do you recommend and why?”

• “What advice would you give first-time visitors to this part of the country?”

• “How did you get started in this kind of work?”

• “Tell me about your family.”

• “Describe your definition of the perfect day in Bali.”

I, too, travel a lot for work and pleasure. Striking up a conversation has allowed me new experiences and lasting memories. Because of exchanges between myself and a local, I have discovered the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants, engaged in expeditions that are not listed in any guidebook and learned more about the city I am visiting than I ever imagined. And I’ve made many friends across the world. Real friends who ask, “How are you?” — and mean it.  Happy travels.

Posted on Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

She Said WHAT? Ten Things Not to Say at the Thanksgiving Table.

 

thanskgiving debTwo topics seem to dominate the morning shows during Thanksgiving week: what is the most fattening thing on the table and how to create the most decadent holiday menu. Is it just me, or does it seem counterproductive to dish on the heart-attack-inducing fat and calories in sausage stuffing while also talking about how to make the very best of said stuffing?

No matter, though, because you’ve got way bigger problems than creating the most succulent turkey while subsequently keeping the button on your pants from popping off and dinging someone in the neck. You actually have to sit at a table and converse with people. I know, I know — you almost forgot that part, didn’t you? Most people do. Everyone is so caught up in ironing napkins and fretting over burned pie crusts that by the time the actual celebration hits, there is a table full of guests ready to eat, drink and be conversational and then — whoops — conversation turns to confrontation. It’s like magic. Dark, spooky magic.

As you might imagine my years of small talking across the country have allowed me to hear loads of stories about awkward, painful, or downright rude comments made at the Thanksgiving table. Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful for the good things in life. And that includes the people around your table. Yes, all of them. YES, even Uncle Joe.

So — I am sharing with you my some of the most heinous conversation killers so you can both avoid saying them and dodge them if they come your way.

Debra Fine’s Top Ten Thanksgiving “Oh No, She Didn’t?!” Just Say That List:

1. “So! Any wedding plans?” or, next, “Any baby news yet?” Many of us (me included, I must admit) presume that running the dating marathon reaches the marriage finish line. No. And no again. As for the baby question, think first! What if the couple is struggling to conceive, doesn’t want to have children or is expecting but not ready to share the news? So pipe down. If someone wants you to know their intimate intentions, you will. Try this: “Catch me up on what’s happening since I last saw you two.”

2. “I heard Sarah got into Northwestern… why in the world is she going to Michigan State instead?” Maybe Sarah just loves green and white. Maybe Sarah didn’t really get into Northwestern. Maybe the economy has put a damper on attending private institutions. Maybe you should just pass the gravy. Try this: “I hear Sarah was accepted to a number of universities; what swayed her decision to go to MSU?” 3.”No, thanks. I gave up drinking after I see how it ruins families.” This is meant to deliberately point a finger, and everyone knows it. If you must address someone’s overindulgence, do it in private! Making someone feel bad about him or herself does not typically drive better behavior. It drives people to — well, I was going to say ‘drink,’ but that seems inappropriate here. Try this: “I’d love some water, thank you.”

4. “This house is so much smaller than your old one!” Um, yes, homeowners are aware of their square footage. Falling APRs and zero interest loans created a housing crisis for basically everyone, not just those strangers you read about in the newspapers. Try this: “What’s the best part of celebrating your first Thanksgiving in your new house?”

5. “Betcha wish you didn’t vote for him now!” Stop gloating and remember that we are all in this together. And karma is real. Start ridiculing your guests’ choice of candidates and I guarantee yours will turn up on the front page with a drug problem. Or a mistress. Or a mistress with a drug problem. You get the picture… and it’s an ugly one. Try this: “Who wants potatoes?”

6. “How much pie have you had?” or “Why aren’t you eating anything?” Leave everyone alone and let others eat or not eat; just worry about yourself and what you are putting in your own mouth which, at this point, seems to be your foot. Just because you slaved over the pumpkin pie or prepared three types of jello does not mean everyone is required to indulge. I mean, I would eat the three types of jello but …. Try this: “Everything is delicious.”

7. “I just can’t imagine being a stay-at-home mother — what do you do all day?” Oh, no no no — this is one of the lowest blows because it typically pits woman against woman and that is a crime! We must stick together, whether we are running a Fortune 500 company or running another load of laundry. Your job as a guest is to show genuine interest in your conversation partner; ask questions that elicit a thoughtful and honest response. Try this: “What surprised you about becoming a stay-at-home mother?” or “What part of the day do you love?” or “Walk me through a typical day at your house/office?”

8. “Nice shirt” (followed by an eye roll or a heavy sigh). Leave him alone. His priorities are not the same as yours. Appreciate that he is wearing a shirt. And hopefully pants. Period. Try this: “Nice shirt” (minus the eye roll and heavy sigh).

9. “Your son looks just like you and your daughter looks like she could be from a different family? Is she the milkman’s baby?” What if she IS the milkman’s baby? What if she is adopted? Personal questions that you do not know the answer to are never a good idea. I repeat — personal questions you do not know the answer to are never a good idea. These include:

“Did your son graduate?”

“How is the boyfriend?”

“Are you going to get him some braces?”

“Did she go to prom?”

“How’d she gain all that weight?”

“How’d she lose all that weight?”

“Did she find a job yet?”

Try this: “What’s the latest news on Jane?”

10. “Delicious! Did you cook this or order it?” You may be asking because you sincerely wish to know how you can create this dish yourself, but you are putting the host/hostess on the spot. Instead, compliment the dish and ask for the recipe after the meal. If it was not homemade, maybe she will confess. Or not. Try this: “Happy Thanksgiving everyone