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How to make small talk on the phone

Welcome to another useful, free episode of the Art of Business English where we teach you all the skills you could ever need to help you succeed in business.

This week I am joined by my colleague Loic, where we discuss how you can make small talk on the phone.

In this episode we are going to define small talk, show you why it is important, look at some techniques for generating small talk with both people you know and people you don’t know over the phone, and finally we will consider some question types that you can use to form better questions.

What is small talk?

A common definition of small talk in the Cambridge dictionary is,

“Polite conversation about things that are not important, often between people who are meeting for the first time.”

So, looking at this definition we could infer that small talk has a bad reputation. I personally beg to differ, I feel that small talk has a role to play in business and social gatherings, however you need to use your emotional intelligence to do it well.

In fact, small talk can lead to new relationships and some very interesting discussion. Some people even have an arsenal of “deep”, yet socially safe questions that they ask people at parties or events. These questions can in some cases lead to some amazing and inspirational discussions.

Open vs closed questions

Basically, in English and particularly when socialising we can use two question types. Closed questions and open questions or WH questions.

Firstly, let’s look at closed questions. These are questions that begin with an auxiliary verb and can only be answered with either “yes” or “no”.

some examples of closed questions when making small talk are:

“Did you have a nice weekend?”
“Did you hear that Brian has been promoted?”
“Is this your first trip to Spain?”
“Have you been working here long?”

As you can see, answering these questions with anything other than a yes/no answer is impossible.

Open questions on the other hand can lead to more open discussion. We also call open questions WH questions because they are formed using interrogative pronouns such as what, when, where, how and why.

Here are some examples of open questions when making small talk:

“What did you do on the weekend?”
“How did Brian get promoted?”
“When did you arrive in Spain?”
“How long have you been working here?”

It’s obvious that open questions will generate a more detailed response from your speaking counterpart than a simple yes or no answer.

Now that we can see the power of open vs. closed questions, let’s look at making small talk on the phone. 

Watch the episode here

Making small talk with someone you know on a call

Often in business we are busy and in a rush, and it is true that some cultures skip small talk and get straight down to business, however making small talk with someone on the phone who you know is considered polite.

We often jump on a call and never consider the other person. Yet making small talk can be very polite and actually show that you care or want to know about the other person’s life.

I would recommend not paying lip service to small talk, you should do it because you are generally interested in the other person and not because you think it is the “right” thing to do.

So, let’s look at some examples of “safe” small talk with someone you know on the phone:

“How’s things John?”
“How’s that family Maria?”
“How’s life treating you John?”
“How was the weekend?”
“What did you get up to on the weekend?”
“How’s work been lately?”
“Are you busy these days?”
“How’s business been?”

When making small talk with someone you know, it is generally OK to ask them about their life, family and business, but I would stay away from more controversial topics.

Secondly, we can generally invest a little more time with someone you know in small talk before moving on to stating the purpose of the call.

Just so we are clear, the steps for the call would be:

  1. Establishing the connection e.g. “Hi John, it’s Andrew here, are you free to chat for a minute?”
  2. Making polite/genuine small talk e.g. “So, how’s life treating you as of late?”, “Oh great, nice to hear, and the wife and kids?”
  3. Transitioning to stating the purpose of the call e.g. “Right, well I was just calling you to discuss…”

Let’s move on and look at the steps for making small talk with someone you don’t know.

Making small talk with someone you don’t know on a call

This can be a little more difficult and the first rule is to invest less time in small talk. You don’t want to start asking someone too many questions before stating the purpose of the call. In this case, small talk is used much in the way as I outlined in the definition. Even though it is defined as “pointless”, many cultures do expect it and it is part of the “dance” of making a phone call.

When making small talk with someone you don’t know on the phone, it is best to make statements and not ask many questions. You can also try and look for ways to orientate the person as to why you are calling them. To do this a good introduction, polite manner and any connection to the person should be established from the beginning.

Some small talk statements you could use on a call with someone you don’t know are:

“I hope you are well.”
“How is everything with you?”
“I trust you are doing well.”
“I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.”
“I am Andrew, Mark Burns gave me your number, he told me you’re the person to talk to about…”
“So, you are not too busy, are you?”
“I just need 5 minutes of your time; would that be OK?”

So, the process here would look like the following:

  1. Establishing the connection e.g. “Hello John, my name is Andrew Ambrosius, I am calling from…”
  2. Making a polite statement e.g. “I hope you are well. How is everything with you?
  3. Transitioning to stating the purpose e.g. “Great to hear. Now, the reason I am calling is…”

Final thoughts

Making small talk doesn’t need to be difficult, it just requires a bit of emotional intelligence and tact and then you are on your way to a successful social/business interaction.

Remember, it is always polite to make genuine small talk with people you know, this shows them you are a real person who actually cares about them as another human being. While on the other hand, when dealing with people you don’t know, it is nice to be polite, but you shouldn’t spend too much time engaging in small talk when on the phone. Most people are busy, and it is best to get to the purpose of your call to ensure that the call is successful.

If you are serious about improving your socialising skills and want to become better at making small talk, engaging people in conversation and keeping a conversation going, then you will not want to miss my online course “How to engage people in conversation.” This short course is packed full all the steps, tips and language you need to become better at socialising. Enrol now and use the code MAKESMALLTALK to get 50% of my signature course.

Make sure you stay with us for next week’s continuation. We are going to look at how you can make small talk with people who are physically present in your company and avoid those embarrassing silences. 

See you all then. 

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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

Andrew Ambrosius

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