While freshman year can be riddled with anxiety as students adjust to new cities, schools, and rigorous academics, many have expectations about how well they’re supposed to be coping with the changes. When Leigh Miron left Chicago to begin her undergrad at Georgetown University, she wondered why she was having a hard time connecting with people.
“When I spoke with girlfriends from home, they talked about how great of a time they were having at college. Everyone was in sororities. Everyone was meeting their new best friends. And I was confused and embarrassed about why I was having such a difficult time,” Miron, now a Class of 2022 MBA student at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, tells Poets&Quants. “In my experience, everything felt surface-level. Conversations were about where you were from, what you were studying, and what kind of job you wanted once you graduated.”
It wasn’t until Miron spoke with her best friend and now business partner, Kalina Silverman, that she found someone who was also struggling to connect to others on a deeper level. While Miron and Silverman had initially been excited about leaving home for a new adventure, they bonded over their shared experience of feeling alone. The pair decided to create a challenge for each other to help curb the freshman blues: Every week, they would have at least one meaningful conversation with someone new.
What started as an experiment to build deeper relationships quickly turned into a social movement. Silverman, a Northwestern University broadcast journalism undergrad, began a video series where she asked strangers questions, such as, “What do you want to do before you die? What was your childhood dream? What gives you hope?” As the videos increased in popularity, Miron pitched Silverman an idea: Turn the movement into a business where they provide education and tools that help people skip small talk and engage in meaningful conversation.
In 2018, the best friends became business partners and founded Big Talk, a communication approach centered around questions that are universal, open-ended, and elicit stories to help people move past small talk and build deeper relationships. The goal? Foster an inclusive environment that encourages a sincere exchange of thoughts, insights, feelings, and experiences.
GETTING PAST SURFACE-LEVEL CONVERSATIONS
When Miron first began using Big Talk questions as a way to meet people at Georgetown, she was surprised at how effective they were. “I found that if I was brave and pushed past the small talk, whether it was with a friend or a complete stranger, I was learning new things, discovering shared experiences, and establishing connections.”
Miron says that Big Talk can not only help to build rapport in personal relationships, but it can also enhance performance, success, and well-being in a professional and academic setting.
“I have found that teams operate better when you have more authentic and genuine connections, because then not only are you working towards a common goal, but you’re also invested in each other’s successes. Plus, you have an environment where there’s safety to take risks and to be more innovative, leading to lower turnover, improved efficiency, and overall more smooth-running businesses.”
Hired by corporate companies to facilitate Big Talk workshops, Miron says they’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback from their team talks. “I’ve had partners saying that they felt like they learned more about a teammate in a 15 minute Big Talk activity than they did from any other team dinner, coffee, or activity in the past.”
Due to the psychological safety created through deeper engagement, Miron says it’s no coincidence that many people are connecting on a level they haven’t before.
“It’s especially powerful if you get a company leader sharing. I think when you take a top down approach and someone from a high up position is willing to be vulnerable and share personal experiences, it helps people across levels feel like that is something that the entire company really values.”
In addition to using Big Talk in corporate settings, Miron has also used it amongst her Kellogg peers to foster connection.
THE IMPACT OF GOING DEEPER
Two years after Big Talk’s official conception, it has impacted thousands of people around the world — both personally and professionally. From an army captain who was deployed for seven months in the Middle East and used Big Talk questions to send letters back and forth with his girlfriend, to those serving prison sentences who were able to realize their strength to overcome their struggles, to employees in corporate companies who felt more connected to their colleagues after working with the Big Talk questions, there’s no doubt that people are craving the impacts of vulnerability and deeper engagement with each other.
“We’ve done work across the U.S., Australia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. We’ve had interest all over the world and questions about getting our Big Talk cards translated into different languages to build empathy across cultures.”
As Silverman studied how to build empathy across cultures in Singapore for a year as part of the Fulbright program, Miron began looking at her next steps to help push the business forward.