When it comes to excelling at first impressions and operating as a high performing leader, there's one trait that isn't spoken upon as much as it should be--social skills

Being more specific, making small talk and perfecting the art of the causal ramble. For those who are more introverted, small talk sounds about enjoyable as the plague. I'll admit, small talk has only been a recent addition to my life. 

I was the guy who kept his headphones in and eyes avoidant of people so I wouldn't accidentally instigate a conversation in which I cared nothing about. This may sound harsh. But, I'm the type of guy who generally prefers precision and efficiency--not random conversations about nothing.

However, as this recent New York Times article states, "small talk is an effective way to build rapport." Building rapport and connection with team members, peers, and even customers is a vital piece to succeeding as a leader in the modern era.

With that said, here are two principles that helped me improve at small talk along with boosting my leadership abilities.

1. It's about how they feel, not what you say.

If you're anything like me, a big part of avoiding small talk stems from anticipation. Will you say something stupid, offensive, or be perceived as weird? This type of logic is false and is keeping you from cultivating richer relationships and connections.

I avoided networking events and other similar events due to my worries. However, as one of my friends continually reiterated until it finally sunk into my thick skull, "what you say only accounts for a small part of the equation, the most important piece of the pie is how they felt around you."

Take solace in knowing that the odds of someone remembering every word you said is low. Showing up with good body language and active listening, you'll definitely be remembered in a highly favorable light.

Next time you address your team, a peer, or even a friend, focus less on what comes out of your mouth and more on how they're receiving it.

2. Avoid cliche questions.

We've heard the saying that "the quality of your life is determined by the quality of questions you ask yourself."

This principle also applies to small talk and casual rambling. I use to be a "lazy questioner" who recited off closed-ended and low energy questions that were heavily retreaded. And to no surprise, the conversation was boring and awkward the majority of the time.

Questions like "how are you doing" and "how did the weekend go" along with other similarly formed questions are closed-ended, typical, and leave no room to get some banter going.

When asking questions at networking events or with strangers in general, I pretend I'm playing tennis. I need to hit the ball over the net along with keeping it inbounds so the other individual can hit it back to me.

An ideal way to accomplish this is to ask open-ended and uncommon questions.

Some questions I like to ask after the initial greetings are:

  • What motivates you more, winning or not losing--and why?
  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • What's something exciting you did this weekend?
  • What do you know deep down you need to do but for whatever reason, you're just not wanting to do it now. (great for peer-to-peer relationships in pursuing goals)?
  • What's the most difficult aspect to 'insert their job'?

Asking uncommon questions not only helps you stand out, but it will also help you become more interested in the conversation. This translates to better body language and lowers anxiety about the encounter.

Small talk isn't going anywhere anytime soon. As a leader, tactics and tools are important, but nothing beats the simple element of displaying that you're an actual human--not a robot.