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The Power of Small Talk

Updated: May 3, 2022

The most important successes in our lives are based on key moments, decisive turns of events, and most often they are based on instinctive, authentic communication. Let me tell you a little story.


I would like to take you on a journey through time to the beginning of the nineties of the last century. They were an exciting era for the information technology industry because they laid the foundations for the digital revolution and the associated social upheavals. Personal computers became affordable, which meant that not only computer freaks, but also normal consumers were interested in using computers, mobile phones and the Internet.

Thanks to the leaps in performance in computer hardware, the nineties also laid the foundation for software companies, for example in computer-aided design applications. A pioneering company in this field was the computer software and services company PTC, founded in 1985 and headquartered in Boston on the American east coast. It earned good money with its CAD (Computer Aided Design) applications.

I was assigned to set up the national organization in Switzerland for PTC from 1991 onwards, and then in a second step, after a promotion, I also took over responsibility for Austria and Southern Germany. I still remember our CEO at the time, Dick Harrison, and our first meeting as if it had only happened yesterday.

"Roland, are you nervous?" Communicate authentically

It was on a beautiful summer's day in Cannes on the south coast of France, where I was on my way to my promotion and had to wait for the blessing of our CEO, who happened to be on the Côte d'Azur. It was eight o'clock in the morning and we had arranged to meet in the lobby of a noble five-star Art Deco style hotel on the Croisette promenade, where Dick was staying. I myself was of course accommodated in a more modest place, in a hotel with three stars above the entrance. I stood there in the lobby and waited for the things that would come.

Suddenly I heard his voice behind me. "Roland, are you nervous?" I turned around and there he was, slightly stocky Dick Harrison with his flaming red mop of hair and a head shorter than me, and Dick Harrison's eyes were looking at me head to toe. What did he say? Nervous? Am I nervous? I was going through different thoughts like in a movie. But I needed a quick, quick, quick, glib answer. As you know, there's no second chance for a first impression. Yes, what exactly did I want to answer now?

"I will exceed my sales target by 65 percent this quarter and your company needs successful people like me. So, there is no reason for me to be nervous," I replied. That sat. CEO Dick Harrison smiled and said, "Let's have breakfast together."

If you're not willing to make friends, you're not in business.

At breakfast Dick Harrison told me this and that and that after our conversation he was on a sailing trip to the Balearic Islands. It was small talk. He didn't ask me classic interview questions. We didn't say a word about business. After an hour he said he had to leave now and almost casually he said that I had the promotion in the bag. From now on I was Regional Sales Director with responsibility for fifty employees at the Zurich, Friedrichshafen and Vienna locations.

North Americans have a relaxed attitude to small talk because they recognize its value. Because we are human beings, we get to know each other better through emotional conversations than through intellectual monologues. So, breakfast or lunch with your boss is not about food. It's a pitch. It's all about your communication skills.

Building trust: First friendship, then business

The following PTC years were very exciting for me. They became a time in which I learned a lot about North American business culture. The differences to the Swiss and German business culture could not be greater. Countless times I came across the statement "first we make friends, then we do business". It is a kind of indispensable prerequisite of American business culture. Americans regard small talk as a deliberate, necessary game and use it to make decisions. People of the Alemannic culture can learn a lot from this. Once you have overcome initial hurdles with your small talk conversation culture, you will find a solid basis of friendship, respect and trust among North Americans. Dick Harrison wanted to test whether the person Roland Kümin behaves as an open and communicative person. What is sometimes referred to as "nursing talk" is the putty that holds people together in the most diverse roles. Smalltalk is about making contacts and building a bridge. The author of "The Serious Business of Small Talk" Carol Fleming says: "For me, small talk is the sound of people reaching out to each other. It is the sound of people looking for ways to find common ground, the offer of friendship. Small talk is a linguistic mechanism that allows us to turn a stranger into a family member."

Small talk is big talk. It is not the facts in your PowerPoint presentation that will shape your company, but the building of trust with your interest groups, be it an investor, your new employee, shareholders or the press. If you are not willing to make friends, you are not in business. And authenticity in dialogue is always the prerequisite for people to feel that they are being addressed in the truest sense of the word.

Lessons Learned - Impulses and Tips for the Startup Scene Switzerland

This is an excerpt from my book "Lessons Learned" with many tips for startups and interested parties. Until now the book was only published in German and therefore I will post here from time to time a chapter from this book in English.

I hope you enjoy it and of course I'm happy about any feedback.

Best, Roland

One more thing: How to learn to master the art of small talk

  • Read the daily news and talk about it.

  • Go to specific events to practice small talk.

  • Listen carefully to conversations between sales trainers and small talk professionals.

  • Use W-questions: "And what brings you to our event tonight?"

  • Develop nuances and patterns for small talk. Train them.

  • Develop an intuitive understanding of what works and what doesn't in small talk.

  • Take advantage of every small talk opportunity.

Are you interested in my book "Lessons Learned - Impulses and Tips for the Startup Scene Switzerland"? Here, at Amazon, you can buy the book (in German language).

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