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Win at Small Talk: Surviving the First 5 Minutes of a Virtual Meeting

Oh, virtual meetings! You encounter technical difficulties, the software might turn you into a potato, and the worst – you have to go through those first 5 awkward minutes waiting for everyone to join.

Those first few minutes of a meeting are crucial for the rest of the event, but when it comes to online ones, it becomes even more so. Why? Because the first people to join are the ones who get to set the tone. Of course, being the first one to join an online meeting (or even worse, being the second one to join) and go through the uncomfortable small talk is not fun for most of us. Especially when it’s in English and English is not your mother tongue. However, if you gather up the necessary courage to be there first, you get to lead the conversation, push your agenda, and it will be easier for you to speak up later.

So, how do you gather up the courage to get through the first few minutes of a virtual meeting?

First off, don’t stress! Try not to obsess over details. As a non-native speaker, it’s normal to worry about making mistakes, not being understood, or getting stuck in the middle of an explanation. Yet the truth is – we all make mistakes. Your colleagues are more understanding than what you think, and you shouldn’t panic about not choosing the right preposition (although if this torments you, we can help you ace prepositions).

What you can do, though, is over prepare. Have your ideas ready before the meeting, write down useful phrases to explain your ideas, and have a little mind map sketched.

Now you’re confident enough to survive the beginning of an online meeting, let’s introduce your best friend for those those first five minutes: Small Talk. You can listen to our podcast episode on small talk and read the transcript below.

What is small talk and why is it important?

Small talk is an informal type of communication that serves as the best source of conversation between people who don’t know each other well, and the topics covered during small talk are generally not important, like the weather or sports.

But, although you talk about unimportant things, small talk is very important, especially in a professional context. It is a fundamental workplace skill that will help you establish relationships with colleagues, build rapport with customers, and build trust with people around you.

So for those few minutes of a virtual meeting, engaging in small talk will help you avoid awkward silences and start off setting the right tone. You may also want to prepare your professional introduction, in case you don’t know some of the participants.

Remember that small talk is heavily culture-dependent, and the amount of time you spend chit-chatting will be based on where the participants are from.

0033 Talaera Webinar - Small Talk (March 2022)

How to prepare for small talk?

We talk about this topic at length at our webinar on Small Talk (see upcoming webinars), but we’ll give you some great tips to prepare for engaging in small talk during those first few minutes.

#1 Do your research

Check out who’s attending and look them up, find out where they are, check some stats or news related to their location or company (especially if they’re positive ones!).

This doesn’t mean that you should go and stalk every single participant. It’s more about being informed and having information you can then use to establish a connection and have something to talk about, like knowing where they are, what school they went to, or what’s going on in their company.

#2 Mimic the other people

Mimicking is one of your strongest strategies when connecting with others and building rapport. Repeat some of the words or expressions you hear them say, use a similar tone as them, or even subtly mimic their body language.

Unless they’re being negative or gossiping! In this case, you’ll be better off if you don’t do likewise.

#3 Ask more, speak less

Let people talk about themselves. Did you know that talking about ourselves triggers the same sensation of pleasure in our brains as food an money do?

Some think that speaking about your own projects and achievements will impress others while, in fact, if you let people talk and just listen, they will leave the conversation liking you more.

#4 Learn that not all silences are bad

Silences are awkward. That’s a fact. We all try to fill all silences, all the time. However, you should allow people to think for a few seconds and give them some space. If you are able to tolerate those brief quiet moments, it will show confidence – and your less quick peeps will appreciate the extra time to express themselves properly.

What are great small talk topics?

The weather is always the rock-star of all small talk. And although it might be the easiest, safest of all, it may not particularly exciting. Your location, trivial work-related, and entertainment are also great options to go for.

Make sure you stay away from controversial topics, politics, religion, gossiping, money, and physical appearance. And never, ever, speak badly about anyone – you really never know! And especially with online meetings, the conversation could be recorded and distributed. So do not assume this is a private conversation and the people you’re criticizing will never hear.

0033 Talaera Webinar - Small Talk (March 2022) (1)

Keep working on your communication skills

There are still many questions around small talk – how can you keep the conversation going? How do you transition to the main topic of the meeting? How can you build rapport online? We answer them in our small talk webinar. Check our free webinar calendar here. If you would like to work on your communication skills with one of our expert instructors, contact us.

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If you enjoyed this article, keep reading:

Talaera Talks – Transcript Episode 3

If you are learning English, including new English words and expressions will help you with effective communication. Remember to check out our other episodes on how to make small talk, how to deliver engaging presentations, how to speak English fluently, and many more: visit the podcast website. Listen to it on your favorite platform.

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Welcome to Talaera Talks, the business English communication podcast for non-native professionals. My name is Paola and I am co-hosting this show with Simon. In this podcast, we’re going to be covering communication advice and tips to help express yourself with confidence in English in professional settings. So we hope you enjoy the show!

Paola Pascual 0:25
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Talaera Talks, the business English communication podcast for non-native (English) professionals. My name is Paola and I’m here with Simon. Hey, Simon.

Simon Kennell 0:34
Hey, Paola, how are you doing today?

Simon Kennell 0:36
Great. How are you?

Simon Kennell 0:38
I’m doing well, doing well. You know, just still in my small apartment here in Odense, Denmark. And yeah, when are we recording this? It’s December and it’s getting dark. And yeah, so yeah, I’ve got the candles on and everything like that. How about you?

Paola Pascual 0:57
Christmas coming! Yeah, getting ready. Bit sunnier here in Valencia. But it’s pretty nice.

Simon Kennell 1:03
I’m very, very jealous. Well, yeah, let’s dive into it. Our topic for today is actually what we started with today, which was small talk, right? And small talk is one of those things that actually, before we started today, I kind of realized I never kind of critically looked at small talk and analyzed how to small talk in English. Because I think for me, it’s such a natural thing. But why don’t you start us off with what small talk actually is?

Simon Kennell 1:46
So small talk is that kind of conversation that doesn’t last so long. And you basically talk about unimportant things. And as I traveled, I realized that that was not so obvious for everyone, because I did get the question of okay, but if it’s unimportant, then why? Why is it so important? Right? And but it’s a bit like shaking hands or waving goodbye, like, we have all these ways in which we connect with each other, even if it’s just through these unimportant conversations.

Simon Kennell 2:21
Right, right. And, and yeah, for me, it’s actually growing up in the southern United States, it’s like small talk is one of the first things you learn as a child is to be able to chat and talk about nothing. And it’s more of a way of, yeah, gaining trust with another person and, and kind of, yeah, just, you know, not talking about something serious, but just having that small interaction is, is so important. And so yeah, the way I was raised was, yeah, we always ask, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ Even though maybe we’re not totally interested in ‘How’s it going?’ But it’s, it’s part of the ritual of reading someone. I mean, what about you, as far as how you were raised and brought up? Was that like, a common thing for you?

Paola Pascual 3:20
Yeah. I mean, I also have this mix of Spanish and American. And I also was, I spent a lot of time in Florida. I know you did as well. And there, it’s so easy to just engage in small talk, but also in Spain. It’s very, very… it’s a Mediterranean thing to just talk and build that kind of relationship. But then when you travel, you do realize that it’s so different in other places.

Simon Kennell 3:46
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, and where I live now, in Denmark, small talk isn’t nearly as big of a thing. Here is it as it was growing up, but and we’ll talk about how it’s culturally influenced, right, but in English, I think in most situations, it really, it really matters. And why does it matter? I mean, you know, I think it’s, it’s that first step in establishing a relationship. It’s, it’s important in life and in business, of course. I mean, at least for me, the biggest reason for me is that it avoids awkward silences, which I physically I can’t handle. So. I mean, that’s, that’s why it’s really I think, important for me. And of course, you know, it’s a, it’s a great way to practice English.

Paola Pascual 4:40
Yeah, it is, but also in business is super, super important. Because that’s how, as you said before, it’s how you start building trust.

Simon Kennell 4:47
Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s not just Hello. Hello, do you want to buy this product? You know, it’s, you have to Yeah, have rapport gain. Yeah. gain a relationship, of course, and it doesn’t, you know, doesn’t come in But, you know, it’s, yeah, it’s so important. It’s so important. And that kind of you touched on this a bit earlier about what has small talk been like now during Corona, right?

Simon Kennell 5:12
Mm-hmm. It’s so hard because when. So first of all, I do think small talk is what? What makes us different from just machines. And it was a way of, even though we talked about unimportant things, it was that way of breaking the ice, and in many cases, we were pretty fake. I don’t know if you agree, but when was when someone asks, How are you doing? How are you? How’s it going? Oftentimes, we just say, Fine. We don’t.

Simon Kennell 5:47
Yeah. And this is one of the I would say one of the criticisms of American small talk, especially is it’s fake. You know, like, Hey, how are you doing? Fine. How are you doing? Fine. Which sometimes, yeah, it is. And I’ve caught myself having a horrible day and someone asks, How are you doing? Oh, everything’s great. Yeah, absolutely.

Paola Pascual 6:11
Yeah. But with COVID, we almost cannot fake it so much, right?

Simon Kennell 6:17
No, yeah. Yeah. It’s like, how are you doing? If your country is just been put on lockdown, you know?

Simon Kennell 6:23
Yeah. So now I would say people are a little bit more open to sharing what is actually going on? Hmm. So I think it’s fine to, yes, talking about the weather. It’s still a thing. But if Corona steals the spotlight, then it’s also it’s normal? I don’t think it’s a what there’s a way to avoid it.

Simon Kennell 6:46
I don’t know. But you know, you bring an interesting point. Because I think it could also go both ways that, you know, we hear about COVID fatigue, right, that sometimes maybe some good small talk is also something not related to, to COVID, you know, of course, but I still find it. It’s always something that, you know, is one of the first things that I discussed with people. It’s like, how’s it going, you know, if I’m on with a client, and then they’re just like, Oh, well, yeah, our country just got shut down. And you know, I can’t go out and everything. Well, that’s, I’m not gonna brush that off. I want to keep discussing up because that matters to them. Right? Mm-hmm.

Simon Kennell 7:27
Yeah. So what would you say are good topics for small talk?

Simon Kennell 7:32
Yeah, so some good topics for small talk. I mean, there’s the first thing I always do if I really want to engage in small talk with with someone is I’ll kind of check and see if there’s something that I have in common with them. You know, that can be anything, you know, what they’re wearing? Or if I’ve seen something, I’ve observed them doing something before or, or, you know, what have you like, Oh, I really like your phone case, or something like that, you know, just small little thing. or sports, of course, those are, I think, are some good topics.

Simon Kennell 8:12
Or like the university you went to with the things that you’re if you’re studying something similar, like we talked about this earlier today, we’re both studying similar things, right around HR and the psychology of work. So that’s something we often talk about the first time. Yeah,

Simon Kennell 8:28
yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I think both of us kind of, you know, geek out on certain aspects of Yeah, culture and communication. And that always develops, I think, usually from small talk into a good conversation. Right. So, yeah, like we said, it’s that that first few minutes is the small talk, but then that can develop into a good conversation. And yeah, little things, little observations. I mean, what do you have any, like, tips that you use when you’re looking for something that you have in common with someone to develop, like small talk?

Simon Kennell 9:08
So if it’s a client, I would, I will probably do my homework. And yeah, by doing my homework, I mean, check them out on LinkedIn. See if you know a little bit more about them. The university they went to the trips they’ve done it’s not so much about fully stalking them, because I can

Simon Kennell 9:25
Yeah, it’s a little LinkedIn stalking.

Simon Kennell 9:29
Yeah, you have to be careful. You can not scroll too much. So you might

Simon Kennell 9:35
Yeah, then they’ll notice. Yeah, but no, you’re totally right. Yeah. Getting a little research or Yeah, seeing what university or maybe what experiences Yeah,

Paola Pascual 9:50
absolutely. Experiences free time. Things you have in common, as you said, are great tips. There’s this other one about mimicking others. And it happens with physical gestures. So if someone is, I don’t know, using their right hand to touch their hair, if you do the same, by mimicking them, they’ll somehow like you more. And that also happens with words as well. So if they start using a sentence, if you carefully embedded in the conversation and use what they said, so mimic them, then the chances of building rapport are higher.

Simon Kennell 10:28
Hmm, that’s interesting. This is the psychology coming out. And you know, you always teach me something. You know, a, I don’t, I’m bald. So I mean, you know, for the listeners out there, I don’t have any hair to mimic with that. But yeah, maybe embedding a couple of the Yeah, similar vocabulary in there. Yeah, well, what else? What would be some other tips that you would have?

Paola Pascual 10:53
Probably asked more and speak less? I mean, it also depends on the conversation, right? If the other person is finding it hard to just speak, then you want to encourage them to speak. But asking is always have a battery of questions ready to bring up any moment? It’s, it’s always a good one. And yeah, the more the other person talks, especially about them, also, the more likely that they’re like you.

Simon Kennell 11:28
You know, and this, you brought up this other. Yeah, this other interesting research that you said, what was it that when the other person speaks, they get the same pleasure center as when they’re eating food or something like that?

Paola Pascual 11:47
When they hear their name. So by using… If I call you, Simon and, and someone, especially someone you admire, or someone you look up to, if they say your name, that activates the same mechanism in your brain, or the same chemicals in your brain, as it doesn’t see said eating food or doing some pleasurable thing?

Simon Kennell 12:07
And, yeah, and I think it’s important to kind of state that, you know, you want it to be natural, of course. So, I would say maybe being careful not to say Paola, Paola, Paola, in every other sentence, you know, or overly mimicking, you know, these are like, kind of things maybe you have to practice with and do with, say a deft touch, right. Yeah. And then, you know, just to kind of, and I think this is important to discuss as well, you know, this kind of, as well goes on cultural lines, but which topics are kind of typical General, okay, topics that you can discuss for small talk, and then topics that maybe you want to be careful not to bring up unless you’re a bit closer to the person. Right. So, you know, we always had a rule around the dinner table as if we had like, guests over that we didn’t really know or, you know, whatever. It’s like politics, religion, and sex. We don’t talk about those three until like, they visited at least three times or something like that. And I think Yeah, just to be safe for small talk, we typically tend to, to not to just jump out with those, you know, right away, right?

Simon Kennell 13:32
That’s right. So I would say, super safe topics across the board are the weather. Probably Netflix. That’s always a very easy thing to talk about. Yeah. Sports. Now with a lot of people at home, I found cooking was a big topic as well. So I don’t know who hasn’t made banana bread during the lockdown. I have made (a thousand).

Simon Kennell 13:59
Yes. In a lot of banana bread. Right. And I’ve learned how to make sushi. Oh, so yeah, there we go. We’re small talking right now. Yeah,

Simon Kennell 14:08
easy. Traveling was a safe one. It is not so safe anymore. Or is not such an interesting topic in 2020 or 20. Hopefully better in 2021. But yeah, the location I found it’s not the safest topic but I found that the now that everyone’s having these meetings from home mentioning the decoration if there’s like a nice if you notice something remarkable like a nice picture or a nice painting that could be something cute to engage in small talk. I don’t know what you think about that one.

Simon Kennell 14:44
I would say yeah, I I would probably touch on it. If I’m a little like a little bit into the conversation like a little bit, you know if it’s something that really like stands out, and it’s something Wow, really nice. A little bit into the conversation, maybe not one of the as one of the first things, just because it’s like, oh, what’s I’m looking at your background? What’s going on back there? You know? But oh, that’s Yeah, that’s a lovely painting or something like that a little bit into it. But yeah, we’ve kind of gone through a lot of these different aspects. But I think one of the biggest ones, and we touched on this a little bit was the cultural differences and small talk, right? I mean, what would you say? It’s difficult to explain? Right?

Simon Kennell 15:36
It’s a bit hard. So I think I would love to start we were talking about this anecdote before. And the most, I would say the most typical the to start questions of small talk in the Western world, that would be in the US and in Europe, it’s how are you? And something around the weather? But when I moved to Vietnam, but I I kept hearing a lot was Have you eaten breakfast yet? And the only person that had asked me that question was my grandma.

Simon Kennell 16:07
Yeah, yeah. I would always get the same in Vietnam as well. Have you eaten breakfast yet? Yeah. And if you haven’t, oh, that’s a serious issue.

Simon Kennell 16:16
Right. But for them, it’s a way of it. But for them saying No, I haven’t eaten breakfast yet. It’s like, when we ask, how’s it going? And they tell you a really bad?

Simon Kennell 16:28
Yeah, yeah. It’s Yeah, it’s a it’s Yeah, it’s so culturally influenced. And it’s all I think, a lot to do with. Yeah, of course, nourishment. But yeah, nurturing and how just what’s your general feeling? And of course, we talked about this, where I’m living in, in Nordic country and in Scandinavian countries. Small Talk is typically less, less prevalent. So yeah, Finland definitely is very low, small talk. Yeah, even here in Denmark, it’s not one of the biggest things, you know. So I think, yeah, it comes a lot to cultural differences. And you have a great example of what the cultural differences, right?

Paola Pascual 17:15
Yes. There’s this interesting comparison with peach and a coconut. Have you heard this? This?

Simon Kennell 17:25
Yeah. Yeah. I definitely heard that peach and coconut, and I’ve experienced it 100%.

Paola Pascual 17:35
So just so people know, what we’re talking about the peach culture is, you know how a peach is soft on the outside. But when you get to the center is hard. Well, the coconut is a bit the opposite. The coconut is hard on the outside, but when you get to the flesh, it’s, it’s nice, and it’s softer and sweet. So that’s a bit of comparison between peach cultures like the US, or even Japan, and coconut cultures, like could be Russia or Germany. So you have, as we said, peach cultures like the US, they’re friendly, they’re smiling the user first name very easily, they share and ask, but at least at a superficial level. But then it’s hard when it’s hard to actually get to know them very well.

Simon Kennell 18:23
At the very, very kind of core right? That’s hard. Yeah, yeah. And that’s very true. Definitely. In the American South where I grew up, that’s, that’s what it is, as well. Definitely the more peach culture, but then here in Denmark, it’s much more the coconut culture, which is why a lot of expats find it very difficult to break into the culture here in Denmark is because they see this very hard, external shell. But the great thing is that once you get through the shell, it’s really, really nice. So yeah, but But yeah, so let’s maybe Can we give the listeners an example of something to do and what not to do?

Paola Pascual 19:07
Yeah. So for example, to the question, how are you today? You could go for the short answer five things and you, which is okay, but it doesn’t give so much room for small talk. So you could say, How are you today? You could answer. I’m good things. It’s been very hectic lately, but it should get better soon. How are you? Now in that answer in the second one, the longer one, you gave a very basic answer. But you gave just one detail. It’s been busy. It was also quite positive. Right. It should get better soon. And then you also add ends with a full answer. Yeah, instead of in you, you would say How are you?

Simon Kennell 19:49
And for me as your conversation partner, I’m immediately intrigued and curious. Why is it hectic? What’s Oh, I’m doing Well, thanks but what what’s been so hectic and then boom, we have the ball is rolling, right? And our small talk has begun. Right?

Paola Pascual 20:07
There you go. That’s right.

Simon Kennell 20:08
Yeah. If you gave me a fine, thanks. And you, I just be like, Okay, this person probably doesn’t want to talk very much.

Paola Pascual 20:16
So and very, very simple answer something positive one small detail in and with a full question. So the other person hassle, so a chance of answering.

Simon Kennell 20:27
Yeah, absolutely. I think this was good. And I mean, we developed we started with some small talk, but we got into a conversation about small talk. And yeah, it was. It was fun.

Paola Pascual 20:38
Nice. I actually had a lot of fun today.

Simon Kennell 20:41
Yeah, me too. Me too. And hopefully, all you listeners out there. You can take a few points away from today, which is definitely, you know, why small talk matters, what situations would be appropriate for small talk good topics, you know, some of the tips we gave, and the cultural differences to take in into consideration. So,

Paola Pascual 21:02
Yep! Great.

Simon Kennell 21:04
All right. All right. Yeah. Well, thanks for listening today. And we hope that you’ll keep on listening. And you can visit us at Talaera calm and you can also check us out on LinkedIn. And then besides that, keep on listening and keep on learning and we will be talking to you soon.

Paola Pascual 21:26
All right, talk to you soon.

Simon Kennell 21:28
All right, bye. Bye.

Outro 22:31And that’s all we have for you today. We hope you enjoyed it, and remember to subscribe to Talaera Talks. We’ll be back soon with more! And visit our website at for more valuable content on business English. You can also request a free consultation on the best ways for you and your team to improve your communication skills. So have a great day and keep learning!

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[Note: This article was originally published in August, 2020]


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