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How to Ignite Elevator Small Talk Even When You’re not in One

“Good morning,” I said with relief as I got on the underground elevator.

Chicago’s Grant Park underground parking has always been spooky to me. You have to park in the bowels of the earth and then maneuver a quick “click clack” walk for what seems like two city blocks to the elevator, which slowly and painfully climbs five floors to finally lift you to the street level and sunshine.

So when there is another decent looking human being already in this subterranean elevator, I breathe easier and typically say, “ Good morning” to which my reply is typically “Morning” after which my co-rider returns to his or her text messaging.

But a recent morning was different: my co-rider answered back! He said, “Good morning, how are you?”

It was 7:15 AM and I was so surprised by the invitation to continue a conversation that I blurted out the first brilliant thing that came to mind, which was, ”Fine, and you?” To which he replied, “Great. Looks like nice weather again.” Now I was still foggy conversationally, and all I could come up with was, “Yes, it’s unusual,” and we were at street level. Conversation over.

As I walked to my client’s offices, I thought about the potential for elevator conversations like this one, whether or not you’re actually in an elevator. (And let me be clear, I am NOT talking about the overdone “elevator speech” that everybody is supposed to have but nobody wants to hear.)

To maximize your connection opportunities, even if you have only a minute and even if you’re not really in an elevator, I propose a new response technique when someone asks, “How are you?” This technique stands to promote quicker conversation and connection in a short amount of time. It simply skips a step. Here’s how it goes:

(For almost any Chicagoan you meet)

YOU: “Good morning.”

OTHER: “Good morning, how are you?”

YOU: “Fine, considering that Bears game last night was brutal.”


(For when you meet your boss)

YOU: “Good morning.”

BOSS: “Good morning, how are you?”

YOU: “Fabulous, my hardest working team won an award today.”


(For almost anyone you meet)

YOU: “Good morning.”

OTHER: “Good morning, how are you?”

YOU: “Great. Just found out my dog doesn’t need surgery!”

The idea is simple. Never answer, “How are you?” with the standard, “Fine and you?” but instead offer an igniter to move the conversation forward more quickly. The igniter should fit the person and the situation and always, always be positive. Nobody wants to ride in the elevator with a complainer. Even if you feel terrible, turn it into, “Fine, I’m looking forward to my Ibuprofen kicking in.”  Also, you may have to think in advance about what your daily igniter will be – simply something new in your life in the past 24 hours.

Try this “igniter” technique today and let me know how it works. As always your feedback is welcome!

  1. Avatar
    Christine O'Malley

    I agree wholeheartedly! Plus, you have validated for me why I have always felt funny about the canned elevator speech. It’s simply not natural. I have always been able to connect easily with others one-on-one. Now, I can see what a gift this is. Thank you.

    Christine O’Malley

  2. Avatar
    Steve Zagata

    Good advice. I’m going to script out a default response for those times when a conversation sneaks up on me.

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