Is Talk Ever Small? Experts Say No. SOCIAL SKILLS

`SMALL talk'' can lead to big things, say Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon. Every relationship - business or personal - begins with small talk, the communications specialists (also sisters) conclude. It's an undervalued skill, they say. ``We wanted to help people view [small talk] positively and even as an adventure that could lead to all kinds of interesting things,'' says Ms. Waymon. She and her sister are teaching courses and giving seminars on small talk to educational and professional groups.

It's unfortunate, they say, that most people think of small talk as boring and inconsequential, excusing themselves from making much of an effort with such statements as ``I never can think of what to say,'' or ``I can't remember names,'' or ``I don't know these people and probably will never see them again.''

Beware, the sisters say: You never know when the people you small-talk with today will reappear in your life to benefit you in some special way.

Waymon is a communication management consultant who heads her own business in Maryland, while her sister directs corporate communications at a telecommunications company in Kansas City and teaches at Webster College in St. Louis. It was Lynne who first saw the importance of knowing how to make small talk and began to teach mini-courses in it. Then Ms. Baber got interested.

They define small talk as conversation that helps one enjoy the present moment, exchange information and ideas, and explore future possibilities.

The two main blocks to successful small talk, they say, are these: It tends to be trivialized in our culture, and people insist to themselves that they have nothing much to contribute, and so fail to make the effort.

Baber and Waymon share these pointers for making successful small talk:

Go slowly and put energy into getting a person's name when you are introduced. Make a mental association with the name, repeat it, call the person by name. Help others remember your name by giving a tag line such as, ``I'm Anne Jones and I live three doors down in the yellow house.''

Have an agenda of things you would like information about, or things you have to share. Example: ``I want to buy a new computer. Does anyone have some good suggestions?''

As for things to share, perhaps you know the best Mexican restaurant in town, or have discovered a great new book on time management, or have visited a new art gallery. Whatever it is, the partners insist, ``share generously.''

If you think people use small talk to ``get something'' recall, says Waymon, ``where there is no mystery, there is no manipulation. So tell people right up front what kinds of information you might be looking for. If they can't help, they'll say so.''

Remember that you have enough topics right now to talk about for years. You know people. You have traveled, read books, watched television.

So why should you feel inhibited, with so much going on in your mind? The scope of topics that can be discussed is limitless, the partners claim, because it involves everything that interests and concerns people.

Be seriously curious. Let people know you're interested in what they are saying. Ask questions that pursue the topic and don't just skim the surface with clich'es and conventional comments. Delve deeper. You may have been taught that it was impolite to give your opinions, but actually people want to know how you feel and what you care most about.

Don't be afraid to leap in with a new topic when the old one fades or dies.

Never suddenly abandon a conversational partner. Small-talk rules declare that you close off consciously and pleasantly, on a note of appreciation or expectation: ``Thanks for the invitation to attend a meeting of your club with you. Just let me know when.''

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