If you entered the field of accounting thinking you would avoid the anguish of having to interact with people, you have gravely misjudged this field. The field of accounting, particularly public practice, requires that you have strong communication skills. These skills need to go beyond simply knowing where to put the comma or understanding the difference between “who and whom”. Some of the most important relationships I have established, both personal and professional, blossomed from small talk. If you are thinking that you are super awkward and simply cannot “do” small talk, just stick to these basic tips.
- BE AUTHENTIC
Being authentic is critical when networking and building a rapport with someone. People can typically read energies and determine quickly if you are being genuine or if you have memorized a script. When I worked retail I watched sales associates randomly approach customers and use lines like “Do you need help finding anything?”. The reason this line was often unsuccessful is because it was not genuine. There was no emotion felt in it other than “I need to make a sale, please buy something” and customers could easily see past this approach. My approach has always been to build a rapport first. If I see someone that I want sell something to, I start by tailoring the conversation to the individual with whom I am speaking. Now please be clear that this does not mean that you should change who you are depending on who you are speaking to, rather your approach should be tailored to meet the needs of that individual.
2. KEEP IT CUTE OR KEEP IT MUTE
There is nothing worst than sparking up a conversation with someone and having things go left, leaving the other party offended. When making small talk, be careful to discuss neutral topics only. That two minute elevator ride with the managing partner of that accounting firm you are dying to work for is not the best time to discuss foreign policy. Instead, use that time to discuss something neutral that feels relate-able and safe for both parties. Choose a topic that is not confined to a specific demographic, something that just about anyone would be able to discuss. You will likely get more feedback if you ask that partner if they caught last night’s NBA playoff game than you will if you ask what they thought about last night’s episode of The Real Housewives or The Walking Dead.
3. BE ENGAGED
Have you ever spilled your heart out in a text message, I mean practically wrote a thesis on how you felt only to get a mere one word response, like “K” or “LOL”? These types of responses are conversation killers. Without participation from the other party, things dry up quickly and the conversation is over. Making eye contact, head nodding and smiling (when warranted of course) are all great ways to show that you are engaged. If you have the misfortune of chatting with someone who is giving you one word responses, try another angle. If you ask a closed ended question it lets the other person of the hook too easily. So when you are sharing that elevator with an associate who works at your dream firm, don’t ask them if they like the company. This allows them to respond with a conversation killer, like “yes” or “no”. Rather, ask them what they like about working for this firm. In doing this, you have gotten the inside scoop (albeit a small scoop) of what the firm is really like and you have started to build a rapport with someone who could be your way in.
4. THERE IS NO SOCIAL HIERARCHY
Never pass up an opportunity for small talk with someone because you don’t think that person is important enough. While everyone is lining up to speak to that partner, start talking to the senior associate and try to make a lasting impression with them. That associate could very well be the deciding factor in whether or not to consider you for a full time offer or even a promotion. Furthermore, you can never really be sure who you are talking to and what role they could play in deciding your career fate, so be intentional about treating everyone with respect.