Behind the Curtain: Interview with Debra Fine

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Behind the Curtain: Interview with Debra Fine

Entering into a networking event where you only know one or two other people can be daunting to most people, it can be downright terrifying to others.

Even if you consider yourself a pretty good conversationalist: what do you do when the conversation hits a lull?

Debra Fine has taken a systematic approach to figuring out how to build instant rapport with people you’ve just met. By setting the right intention to asking the right kinds of questions, she teaches you how to introduce yourself and start meaningful conversations whether you are at a corporate event or in a coffee shop.

Read on if you’d like to take your networking skills to the next level.

Interview with Debra Fine

Q: What topics do you speak about?

A: The focus of my program is related to conversation skills; building a rapport with people, and enhancing networking opportunities.

Basically, I cover any communication area that revolves around interacting face to face with someone where you want to build rapport, and build a business relationship.

Q: When did you start speaking about this subject?

A: It has been an odd journey. I was originally an engineer. Although it has been quite a while since I was involved in engineering.

I think anybody that either knows an engineer, or is an engineer can relate to this. A lot of people, like me, chose engineering because they don’t like to chat with people. Chatting was not my cup of tea. I was very unskilled at it.

Though I could present a project. If you were my boss, I would certainly come in prepared for any evaluation, or meeting, or anything along those lines. But put me into a hospitality suite, or a luncheon, and I was a fish out of water.

I was very uncomfortable, and I felt awkward. I certainly had no use for small talk, and thought it was a waste of time.

As I observed how I behaved, as well as how others behaved, I recognized that certain people are born with this gift of being able to make people feel comfortable around them, and use conversation skills that help enhance their career, or gain referrals.

I realized that I was missing a big piece, and wondered, “How do you learn how to do that?” Some people are born with it, but what about the rest of us? Can we learn to do that when we need to?

I made it a study in observation and research of how are people doing that. Everything from icebreakers to engage people, to exit lines to get away from them.

I created a program that is tailored to clients based on what they’re involved with. Attorneys want to bring in billable hours, engineers at Cisco Systems want to be able to build relationships with peers in the marketplace, but also peers within the organization.

People who want to be leaders need these conversation skills to help develop rapport in building a better team, and a more engaging workplace. 

People who want to be leaders need these conversation skills to help develop rapport in building a better team, and a more engaging workplace.

I researched for 20 plus years on how to take these tools, and incorporate them into your business and professional life in order to enhance whatever work you are doing.

The reason I got into communication was because I couldn’t do it. I guess that’s the best way to frame it. I didn’t know how to do it, I wanted to learn how to do it.

Now, I believe, and only an engineer would do this of course, I labelled exactly what you do in a very “no fluff” format, because fluff was not for me, and it still is not.

Q: You really taught yourself how to do it, and now you teach others based on your experience. What do you see is a common problem that people have when it comes to small talk?

A: I think the universal problem for people that aren’t born with that gift is, number one, “what do I talk about so that you don’t reject me?” “How do I open a conversation with someone I don’t know?

I think the stumbling block is two-fold. One is: you might reject me, and who wants that? There’s a risk involved there. I address that barrier because I have felt it myself.

I still do on occasion walk into a networking event, or a conference, and not know anyone. I just think “Oh my goodness, how am I going to start a conversation, and who am I going to start it with, and what if they reject me?

I just remind myself, and I ask others to consider that it’s not as risky as it seems. It’s far riskier to go for a drive on a highway. I don’t want to get anybody down who is out there listening, but it’s far riskier to get on an airplane.

I’m just saying that if I put it in perspective, it’s not as risky as it seems to go to a networking event. I can make the most of it by meeting at least three new people, and having a decent conversation.

The other barrier is that most of us, especially those of us who are technically oriented (I don’t just mean engineers, I mean financial advisors can be technically oriented, CPAs can be technically oriented, 4th grade teachers can be technically oriented) because we study in school, and then we practice our profession, and we do very well. But small talk is something that we don’t study, and that we don’t have control over.

Most professionals are very good at what they do, and are looking for the perfect line to open a conversation. I have been looking for a perfect line my entire life.

If you had delivered that perfect line to me I would have walked up to new people. But since no one ever delivered it, I never did it.

There is no such thing as a perfect line. Even if you’re single and listening right now, there’s no such thing as a perfect pick-up line. But the fact is that you have got to be the one willing to open up a conversation.

There is no such thing as a perfect line. Even if you’re single and listening right now, there’s no such thing as a perfect pick-up line. But the fact is that you have got to be the one willing to open up a conversation.

You should come in prepared with things to talk about, there’s no doubt about it. There’s specific things that really launch conversations better than other things. But being the first to say hello is half the battle.

Because I can assure you that people decide whether they’re willing to talk to you before you open your mouth. They rarely, if ever, base it on what you say to engage them in conversation.

The potential person we walk up to and approach has already decided if they have the time or the interest in talking with us, so the perfect line is not necessary. What is necessary is for us to be willing to basically walk up to someone during a coffee break, being able to engage someone when we walk down the hall for an interview.

By interview I mean for gaining any new opportunity, with a potential decision maker, or the CFO of the company you work for. How do you make him or her feel when you’re walking down the hall?

people decide whether they’re willing to talk to you before you open your mouth. They rarely, if ever, base it on what you say to engage them in conversation.

Because if it’s an awkward moment, (because you did not choose to start a decent conversation), that decision maker, that CFO, will not think, “Oh wow, I’d better improve my conversation skills.”

They will just think “That walk down that long hall didn’t feel comfortable.”Who is this person I walked down the hall with? They’re not a very comfortable person to be around.”

Q: What are some of the things that we can do to instantly make someone feel more comfortable around us?

A: A couple of things. If you’ve ever met the person before, so they’re an acquaintance, it could be in the workplace, it could be outside of the workplace at a networking event, or open hours, or an industry conference, whatever it may be.

Instead of saying “How are you Esther?” Because you will probably say “Fine.

Instead of saying “How’s the project?” Because you’ll probably say “Great.”

With acquaintances, I say:

Catch me up. What’s new with work since the last time I saw you?”  

Bring me up to date, Joe. What’s new in your life since the last time I saw you?

Catch me up on your family, John.”

Because if  I say “John, how’s the family?” He’s going to say “Very good.” If I say “Catch me up on the family,” or “Bring me up to date about the family,” he’s more likely to give me a real answer.

The other tip is for when you don’t know people when attending an occasion, or event, or industry conference.

Hopefully you’re not just talking to the people you know. Because if that’s all you’re doing you’re not branching out, you’re not enhancing the visibility of yourself, or your organization, and/or gaining referrals, clients, and just opportunities in general.

So even if you walk in with your crutch, because a lot of us do that, get away from your crutch, and start conversations with new people.

The best way to do that, number one, is always be prepared. By that I mean have two to three things to talk about before you walk into that occasion, event, or interaction. The worst time to think of things to talk about is when there’s nothing to talk about.

always be prepared. By that I mean have two to three things to talk about before you walk into that occasion, event, or interaction. The worst time to think of things to talk about is when there’s nothing to talk about.

Then open the conversation beyond the introduction of “Hi, I’m so and so,” and they’ll model that back with their name.

Then say “I wanted to meet you,” or “I don’t know anybody else here,” or “I’d just like to get to know some other people attending the conference,” or “I know you also work for the company in the test department, but we’ve never had a chance to meet.

Then the best way to launch the conversation is based on the free information we have about whatever the interaction is, the occasion is, the event is.

Then the best way to launch the conversation is based on the free information we have about whatever the interaction is, the occasion is, the event is.

For instance, if I’m at a meeting, and you work for the same company as I do I’ll ask about your history with the company. The free information that I have is you’re with this company.

Tell me where you were before. What brought you here? How did you get into engineering? What do you enjoy the most about marketing? That’s free information we all know, because we all work here.

If I go to a networking event I can ask you, “What other events do you go to in town? “What other associations, or industry events bring you business?” “What have you heard about the speaker tonight?” That’s great information about the occasion. Everybody is going to know who is going to be the speaker.

If you live in Toledo, Ohio, or even if you don’t live there, you’re going to a meeting in Toledo, Ohio where there’s a conference, or one in Toronto, or one in Dublin. It doesn’t matter. All you have to say to somebody is “Are you from Dublin?” Either they are or they aren’t. Then that’s how you launch the conversation.

If they’re from Dublin ask where else they’ve visited that they really enjoyed. If they aren’t from Dublin, where are they from, and what cities have they traveled to? That’s the free information that we can use to launch a conversation.

Q: One of the things you mentioned was the way that you word a question. Instead of wording it as, “how are you?” You say “Catch me up on what has been happening in your life.” What are some other tips that you have about opening with different kinds of questions?

A: I do my research in advance. I will check out the roster, so if I know anybody that is going to be there I remind myself of what I know about him or her.

Say I know that they went on a holiday last year, I know that they have kids, I know that they play softball. Whatever I know, I remind myself of that before I walk into that event so that I’m prepared for that.

That’s real easy these days because of Facebook. If you are Facebook friends with anybody that you interact with, socially and/or business, review what’s out there from them, or on LinkedIn, so that you have things to talk about with them. Be prepared in that way.

The other thing is I never say “Are you married,” or “Do you have kids?” I think that’s out of line, and I think there’s a boundary there.

The way that I start conversations with people, or keep them going, as a way for them to feel comfortable with me, and a way to get to know them in a personal way without going over those boundaries, is I will ask questions about people such as this. “What keeps you busy outside of work?” “What do you do for fun besides work?” As a way to get to know them.

I don’t need to put pressure on people, or try to sell people, I just want to get to know them, and a build a relationship.

I don’t need to put pressure on people, or try to sell people, I just want to get to know them, and a build a relationship.

Q: By really communicating with that person, and learning about them.

A: Right. I think a huge failure in conversation, and extroverts do this all the time, is they do one of these. “So, Esther, what do you do?” Esther says what she does. Then they go, “So, Esther, where are you from?”...Okay, that’s an FBI agent right there. I went from one topic to the next topic.

Just stay on topic. If I ask you what you do, and you say “I’m a journalist”. I’ll say, “How did you get into that?” or  “Describe a typical day?” or “What’s the greatest challenge in your field these days?” I’m going to stay on topic, for goodness sake, instead of just hammering you with question after question.

That’s what’s happening right now, I’m being interviewed. But that’s how it’s supposed to be during an interview. But in real life it should be a tennis game where we volley back and forth.

Q: You get to the end of your five set questions. Where do you live? What do you do? Then where do you go from there, right?

A: Exactly. You’re not connecting. I feel hammered when somebody does that to me. I don’t feel hammered right now, because I’m prepared for this. Let’s face it, Esther, you’re in control of this conversation. That’s not how it’s supposed to be in real life. That’s why small talk can be so hard for people.

Right now, this is easy for both of us, because you have questions prepared, I have answers, let’s face it, I’m prepared because this is my topic, and I was prepared for this interaction with you. This is why small talk can be so hard for so many of us. I’ll just talk about me.

In real life I go for coffee with you, because you’re with the university system where I want to go, and I’d like to build relationships with the alum, and you’re a member of the alum.

You’ve agreed to have coffee with me. I can’t just sit down with coffee and go, “So, what can you do for me Esther?” I have to find out about you, and have a little small talk. Build some rapport before I say what I’m looking for, which is an internship, and is there anybody that you know that can help me.

But before that I need to frame it with small talk, and with small talk nobody has control. That’s why people struggle with it. Because most of us are darn good at what we do for a living. We’ve studied, we’ve gone to school, we practice our profession, and we’re in control.

But before that I need to frame it with small talk, and with small talk nobody has control. That’s why people struggle with it.

It’s when we have to chit-chat with people; whether it be a doctor with a patient, whether it be a CPA with his or her client. Whatever it may be, we don’t have control, and that’s why some people are so lousy at it, or a lot of people are lousy at it.

Q: But it doesn’t actually benefit either of the people in the conversation.

A: Right. We don’t have to benefit one another. Some people work rooms. They just want to gain clients, they want to get business, they want to have customers. Usually we can see right through those people, and most of us don’t care for that.

We do want to get to the business at hand. I don’t want you to chat my head off. Give me two or three minutes, and that’s it.

But sometimes we don’t hit it off with people, or sometimes people don’t want to talk with us. I say, “Let it go, that’s done, it’s fine.” You can’t hit it off with everybody. 

But sometimes we don’t hit it off with people, or sometimes people don’t want to talk with us. I say, “Let it go, that’s done, it’s fine.” You can’t hit it off with everybody.

Maybe somebody is just in a bad mood, or they had a deal go down the toilet, and they don’t really want to chat. That’s fine. It’s not about me. If they don’t want to talk to me I don’t take the blame anymore.

I used to think there’s something wrong with me, or I’m not saying the right things. No. They just have another agenda that doesn’t work with my agenda at this current time.

Q: Then just moving on to talk with somebody else.

A: Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Q: I wanted to switch tracks a little bit, and talk more about your training sessions, and the talks that you give, and when you’re presenting. Can you tell us a bit about what the hardest lesson was that you had to learn when it came to communicating your message?

A: The hardest lesson has been, for over 20 years of being a keynote speaker and a trainer, that I chose the title of the “Fine Art of Small Talk.”

The “Fine” part I hope is as adorable to you as it is to me, and that’s my last name. So, everything I’m involved with I use the “fine art.” But it’s the words “small talk” that get in my way.

I made a decision years ago to just stick with it, and that has helped me, and that has hurt me. It has helped me in that it has gotten me a lot of attention in the media, and that helps my business.

As far as communicating with leaders in the organizations that I work for, I’m glad to say I’m very successful as a speaker and trainer.

But when Google booked me, those words “small talk” did not appeal to them, so the title was changed to the “Fine Art of Building Business Relationships.”

My book is a huge bestselling book, “The Fine Art of Small Talk” it’s out there. But people think all she does is “small talk.” That has been a barrier, and it has also been a reward. I just live with it.

If somebody gives me the chance to talk to them then I get to say we can label it a different way if that makes you more comfortable. I would say that that has been something I have always had to communicate.

I also think because I am a woman, the words “small talk” make it sound trivial. I would say the first five years of building a business were brutal, but thanks to referrals, thanks to a brand, and thanks to video being online people get right away that it’s not trivial, it’s not a waste of time to learn about small talk from this woman, Debra Fine.

I used to be an engineer. I have got tools, and tips that are not only concrete, but really valuable, and will enhance anyone in your organization or outside. That has been my greatest challenge as far as communication out there is just those words, small talk.

Q: You just mentioned that those first five years were pretty difficult. What inspired you to keep going?

A: A couple of things. I’m sort of a pitbull. So when somebody says no to me, that’s all I need.

I’m that kind of a person that would cold call, and would do anything. Every time somebody would say no to me I would just think, “Well, the next phone call is going to be a yes.”

I’m not the kind of person who is passive, and hopes that you’ll call me, or find me. I don’t have to do that anymore. I mean I market to a degree, but not really. Most of it is all referrals. But in those days I took a lot of no’s.

Money motivated me. I’m going to be truthful. I was in a place in my life where I really needed an income. I had two options. I could make this business work, or I would have to go back into engineering.

No offense intended to the engineers out there. Of course I’m an engineer from the old school where I had the Ladies Room all to myself, so it was a little isolating for me, and I just didn’t want to go back there. So, I was motivated in that way.

But I did have some early success as well, and some great things happened. You make your own world happen, you really do. But I had enough motivation that I knew I could make it work. Things paid off.

You make your own world happen, you really do. But I had enough motivation that I knew I could make it work. Things paid off.

When it came to selling my program I actually got people to listen to me, and give me a tryout. Then once people give you a tryout you have to prove yourself. If you prove yourself you get the business. It’s as simple as that.

Q: Being hard nosed, and staying focused on it. But then also it sounds like you’re quite optimistic as well. You would think “Well not this time, but the next one.”

A: That is exactly right. I am very optimistic. I also really believed in my heart, because I came from a place where someone had taught me these skills. Someone at university, or at work, or anywhere said you can learn this.

When I used to be in high school I’d just look at those cheerleaders, and think “I wish I could be like them,” and knew I couldn’t. Then in college, I wished I could be in a sorority. I could never be in a sorority, because I didn’t know how to talk to other women, or anybody.

Then at work, I just wished I could talk to the boss. When he (and it was always a he) would walk up to me I would be responsive. But I would never walk up to him. I just thought, “I wish I could be different.

I used to think I was the only one like that. I really believed that I was this isolated dork out there. When I started this business I learned day after day that I wasn’t the only one.

I mean even if anybody listening right now has sat in a stylist’s chair to get your hair trimmed, or cut, or styled. If he or she is a lousy conversationalist, I don’t care, you don’t go back no matter how good your haircut is, because you don’t want to sit in that chair for another 30 minutes where it feels awkward.

Once I discovered that other people were faced with the same challenge, and that there were ways to really learn how to do it in a no-fluff way, I was committed. I just knew I was on the right path to offering something that people wanted.

Once I discovered that other people were faced with the same challenge, and that there were ways to really learn how to do it in a no-fluff way, I was committed. I just knew I was on the right path to offering something that people wanted.

Q: Because that’s what you did, you jumped in. Now you give presentations around the world on how people can improve their communication.

A: I do.

Q: What’s one piece of advice that you would offer our listeners about effectively communicating?

A: The biggest piece of advice is intention. I can’t hope to come up with a sentence to respond to people on the fly, because we’re so used to conversations. How are you doing? Fine. What’s going on? Nothing. It’s like, okay, now there’s nothing to talk about.

I’m prepared if someone says Debra, how is the family? How have you been? How is work? How is your summer? I have an answer. That’s intention. Intention is walking into a networking event, a conference reception, a coffee break, a wedding.

Intention is this, I walk into that room with the intention of meeting at least two new people. I pick them, two new people, I walk up to them and start a conversation. That’s intention.

A bit about our Speaker

Debra Fine is a bestselling author, keynote speaker and trainer. Her experience as an engineer led to her to take a systematic approach to figuring out how to network and build connections through small talk. 

She presents and trains audiences on how to communicate effective across the globe. Debra designs and trains technically oriented professionals conversation skills and business networking techniques that help in developing business relationships, gaining visibility and building instant rapport.

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