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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.

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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.

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.

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How to prepare for small talk?

We talk about this topic at length at our webinar on Small Talk (You can save your free spot for free here), 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 is also not particularly exciting. Your location, trivial work-related, and entertainment are also great options to go for. 

What are the most common topics during the pandemic?

COVID-19, without a doubt, has become the most common topic since the beginning of 2020. And, let's admit it, however tired we are of it, we still all talk about it. For the first time in, perhaps ever, the whole world shares the exact same problem and is going through very similar struggles. So talking about coronavirus stats, the situation where you are, and how you are dealing with it are new ways of breaking the ice at the beginning of a virtual meeting.

A great other topic I particularly like to break the ice in online meetings is people's backgrounds and surroundings. That great picture on the wall, the galactic virtual background they chose, or the little Spiderman boy climbing onto his mom's lap asking for a snack (true story). 

And my personal favorite - cooking! Because if you didn't cook a single banana bread during lockdown, were you even in lockdown?

What topics do you want to avoid for small talk?

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.

What next?

Well, to survive those first five minutes of a virtual meeting, you might also have to introduce yourself in a professional way, and then be able to gracefully transition to the main topic. These and the questions below are some of the topics we address in our free webinar on Small Talk. If you're interested, sign up here.

In this webinar, we will expand on the topics covered on this post and we will answer all the following questions:

  • What are some common questions and answers for small talk?
  • What can I say if I join the meeting a few minutes late?
  • How can I introduce myself
  • What is some useful vocabulary if there are technical issues?
  • Is it impolite to keep my camera off?
  • How can I build trust and rapport online?
  • How can I get people involved and not take up too much talking time?
  • How to jump into business without sounding rude?

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