When you and I meet for the first time, we’re probably not going to talk about politics, religion or anything remotely controversial. We will probably make “small talk” that may gradually transition into a more meaningful conversation.

Wikipedia says that “small talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance…. an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed.” Small talk is an essential part of our social interactions.

But what about social media? Some social conversations tend to escalate from “0 to 100 real quick” (obligatory Drake reference), and are illustrative (and sometimes entertaining) because they forego small talk altogether. Some social conversations are focused on a customer service concern with little latitude for platitude, but social customers otherwise manage interpersonal distance quite effectively (mute, unfollow, disregard, delete).

Communication professionals have a message to share on social media, and social customers have a sense of propriety that can’t be circumvented. We engage in small talk on social media all of the time, but what makes this small talk most effective?

What I want to do in this post is take a look at 10 attributes of small talk (borrowed from Don Gabor’s book, Talking With Confidence for the Painfully Shy via the University of Oklahoma) and apply them towards social media interactions.

1. Identify interests you’re willing to discuss

When it comes to small talk, social media offers a wealth of opportunities to know who you’re talking to. Posts, Likes, Follows and other conversations reveal a lot about what we value and about our interests. Even if we use social media pseudonymously.

Tools like Cision Social Edition and other social CRM-software allow you to research these topics rather easily, and to keep this information accessible. In this way, small talk on social media is far easier than in real life.

Marketer Austin Malloy writes that “a lot of people put what their interests are right in their bio.” With that perspective, there’s no good reason to be unprepared to chat people up on social media.

2. Search for receptive individuals

At a social event, a receptive individual might be a familiar face, a person you know by reputation, or a person who is under-engaged. In a social media context identifying receptive individuals is a little more difficult: familiar faces oftentimes aren’t your targets, people you know by reputation may not be easily accessible, and under-engaged people may not be active users of a social platform at all.

Targeting tools are probably the most effective means to find a receptive audience on social media, and of course the caveat is that these are (by and large) paid tools. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others offer increasingly granular options for identifying social users to engage with. The challenge then is to identify the right people to engage with.

In a social situation, opportunity is a key aspect to find a receptive audience. On social media, opportunity is far less important than effective planning.

3. Send receptive signals; Smile?

Smile - Social Media Small Talk

In a social situation, you can use good body language and active listening to signal your receptiveness to others. These visual cues are largely absent on social media. This leads to the question: how do you signal that you’re receptive to listen when people can’t see you?

To signal that you’re actively listening on social media, try these three things:

  • Use language and imagery that is difficult to misconstrue. One of the most difficult aspects of written language is to discern context. You can proofread your social copy to see if it could be misinterpreted.
  • Smile and use positive body language when writing. This is a tip derived from phone interviewing. In a few studies, researchers have determined that candidates who had good posture and smiled during their phone interviews were more successful than candidates with poor posture and without discernable positive body language.
  • Repeat the last three words. One technique to display active listening is to repeat the last three words that a person says. The last three words? (see what I did there?) By repeating the last part of a person’s phrase you demonstrate active listening, use the person’s vernacular, and are able to explore deeper into a topic that a person is interested in.

4. Be first to introduce yourself; ask easy, open-ended questions

At a party, there is a limited number of people that you can talk to. On social platforms the possibilities are (for all practical purposes) unlimited. Initiating conversations is very important.

Once you’ve initiated the conversation, you want to keep it going with open-ended questions. And an important caveat to this is to model the behavior you want your recipient to follow. In other words, don’t respond to questions with just “yes” or “no.”

Author Bill Cates offers a trick if you find yourself asking a closed-ended question:

“If you find yourself asking a closed-ended question, you can always open it up at the end. For example, if you start by asking ‘Did you find value in this process?’ you can follow it up with, ‘If so, please tell me in what ways.’”

5. Call people by their name

This tip goes back to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Calling people by their name is good advice for sure, but some research and anecdotal evidence suggests that using people’s names too frequently in conversation is off-putting.

Also note that on social media, a person’s “name” my not be their actual name. You can use tools like Rapportive or Klout to find a person’s name rather easily, but pseudonyms are often used for a reason. A good rule of thumb is to tread lightly here, and call people whatever they are most comfortable being called (even if it isn’t their given name).

6. Listen for facts, feelings and keywords

Exchange-Social-Small-Talk

Gabor describes two targets when listening to others: listening between the lines, and listening for hot topics.

Listening between the lines

Listening between the lines is active listening to find salient points for follow up. For example, a person might mention that they lived in Seattle and you might follow up to ask if they followed the Seahawks, or how much they love Marshawn Lynch (compulsory Seattle reference there, sorry).

Listening for hot topics

Listening for hot topics is active listening for hot button topics. A person might mention that they are a San Francisco 49ers fan for example. In this case it might be unwise to follow up about the Seahawks, or about football at all. It might be wiser to ask about the San Francisco Giants baseball team: Tim Lincecum is the best, amiright?

7. Disclose some of your background, interests and experiences

In a social media conversation, this is a tricky thing to do. You can increase the amount you personally or professionally disclose to people, but you do this in a public forum.

Just as it is wise to transition a social customer to an email subscriber (because of the higher open rate and delivery rate relative to social), it may make sense to transition to a less public platform as the quality of your interactions increase, even if it the stuff your disclosing is innocuous. Email would be ideal, direct messages, too.

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8. Explore people’s interests by encouraging them to talk

According to some studies, we spend 60 percent of our time talking about ourselves in everyday life. If this were the case on social media, it would be well worth our time to encourage people to talk.

In actuality, most people are exceptionally self-centered when it comes to social media. Eighty percent of our conversation has to do with ourselves. In other words, any time you don’t let someone talk about themselves on social media, it is an anomaly.

On social media, a good rule of thumb is to ask a question and get out of the way.

9. Highlight mutual interests

Mutual Interests

Our affinity towards people with mutual interests and values is pretty clear. Whether it is people who like the same kind of music as us, peoplewith similar backgrounds and ages, or people who share our values, we like things in others that we like about ourselves.

Given these facts, it makes sense to accentuate these commonalities to other people. “You think Marshawn Lynch is awesome? Me, too. He was hilarious on Conan.”

If we don’t accentuate these similarities, a social conversation partner may not know that they exist.

10. Restate something you found interesting and end with an invitation

Like conversations in the real world, social conversations have a limited lifespan as well. Unlike real-life conversations however, social conversations sometimes lends themselves to awkward or hanging endings.

It’s good to have an exit strategy, even in social media. Whether by simply restating a part of the conversation that you enjoyed, or agreeing to follow up in the future, the possibility of graduating from small talk is substantially increased by ending on a deliberately high note.

Conclusion

Author Laura Vanderkam has written a couple of the most interesting books on productivity of recent memory (168 Hours and I Know How She Does It), and she writes that each conversation is an opportunity for success, so long as you first diminish your expectations. Vanderkam says about small talk:

“While you can hope for the best, don’t expect too much from any given chat.”

The same applies for social media. That Tweet or Instagram comment or Facebook conversation will probably not register for most folks as the highlight of their week, day, or even session. But with good, affirming small talk you may be able to have future conversations of escalating importance.​

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About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.