How to Make Better Small Talk

Making small talk is a part of everyday life but it can be intimidating. Most of us can readily engage in small talk over short periods of time such as when we order a coffee or buy our groceries but in social situations and at business events where there is an expectation that conversations should play out longer or provide some enjoyment or mutual benefit, initiating and maintaining conversations with strangers can feel quite daunting…

Here are some tips that will help you overcome any anxiety and develop your ability to start up and maintain conversations with others.

Manage your own Body Language

For some of us the most challenging issue is around making an initial contact with someone that we don’t know. We may find ourselves standing by the wall at an event trying to look like we are sending an important text - when what we are desperately hoping for is for someone to come across and start talking with us. To communicate receptivity and to proactively manage any nervousness, adopt open body language by unfolding your arms, move your hands completely away from your face, mouth or chin and smile. By keeping your body language open and relaxed you will appear more confident and friendly, which in turn encourages first contact from others.

Be the First to Introduce Yourself

One thing that tends to stop people from starting a conversation those that they don’t know is the idea that a mutual reason is needed to get a conversation going. The downside of being passive and hanging back waiting for others to start the conversation first is that the longer one waits, the more nervous you may become. Move into action mode instead.

Take the initiative and be the first to say hello. This not only demonstrates your own confidence, it shows an interest in the other person and gives you an opportunity to be noticed as the leader in the social situation. Think of your introduction as the tiny flame that can kick-start a rocket – add the flame and things will progress pretty quickly but withhold the flame and nothing is going to happen. Make your sole objective in the first instance just to introduce yourself. In social situations most people are delighted to chat if someone approaches them in an easy-going way. Do you feel relief and gratitude when someone approaches you and introduces themselves? Try to be the person that can offer those same feelings to others.

So what next?
Listen Carefully for the Other Person's Name and Use it in the Conversation

Even the most sociable people forget the names of the people that they meet. This sometimes occurs because they are too focused on making a good impression or thinking about what they want to say next. If you are a shy person, mastering the ability to remember names quickly boosts your perceived conversational power and really impresses the people you meet.

Here are some ideas on how you can remember the first name of someone you have just met.

  • At the moment of introduction focus only on their name and face.
  • Immediately repeat the person's name to make sure that you have it right e.g. 'Pleased to meet your (name)'.
  • If you miss their name, ask them to repeat it.
  • Think of someone you know already with the same name to make it stick and aid recall.
  • Make sure that you say their name periodically in the conversation.
  • Always use the person's name when you close the conversation.
Opening the Conversation

Start with an opening statement – something that helps establish a connection and creates common ground between the two of you. It is often easiest to make an observation or comment based on your shared surroundings. ‘This is a great event’ or “Did you see that guy on the dance floor?”, ‘That last speaker was weird/boring/funny,’ etc. This establishes a shared experience to bridge your social gap and serves as a pretext for further conversation. Really the opening doesn’t matter much, it just serves the conversational entree. Everybody recognises this to some degree or another and understands that this is just how we get a conversation started.

Next steps

Bridge the gap to an actual conversation by opening up a bit. Don't overwhelm people with your full life story or list your accomplishments as if you were in a job interview, but make things personal by casually introducing into your conversation a bit of your own background and experience to reveal who you are in a positive and interesting way.

By sharing something about yourself, not only are you the master of your own subject matter but even if you are only lowering your defences just a little, others will perceive you as being more socially polished, confident and open that you will ever imagine. Opening up provides for an immediate conversational topic and often results in others feeling more comfortable sharing about themselves as well - after which things will generally get easier.

Take the Lead

There’s nothing more awkward when you’re making small talk than feeling that the conversation is about to dry up. Or you recognize that you are in danger of boring each other to tears. Small talk can quickly become a trip down a dead-end street if both parties focus on just a single subject - so take control on a regular basis. To extend a conversation you will need to change the subject from time to time by using a conversational transition phrase like. ‘Hey, let me ask you something…’, ‘You know, that reminds me,’ or ‘I’ve been wondering…’

Don’t worry about making the transition relevant to what you were just talking about – it is quite OK to change the subject to something else that is not connected. Think of the conversations that you have with your friends where you change threads frequently, often without even pausing to make a transition. You may even leap about between threads – talking about one topic, changing to another and then coming back to a previous one. Most small talk isn’t nearly as linear as we think it is; it’s only when we start over-thinking things that we get stuck in conversations to nowhere. And remember, small talk is meant to be engaging, not tedious.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

One common mistake when making small talk is asking closed questions. Closed questions encourage answers of only very few words. So if you meet someone who is a graffiti artist you may be tempted to ask ‘How long have you worked as a graffiti artist? This can become a conversational dead end because it has just a two or three word answer: not long, a couple of years, six months – and before you know it the baton is back with you to carry the conversation.

Open ended questions encourage longer, more involved answers and the good news is that almost every question that brings a one or two word answer can be rephrased in such a way that makes it more open-ended. So instead of asking ‘How long have you been working there?’ think about asking ‘How did you get started?’, or ‘What’s the best part of doing X?’ You need your questions to leave openings for clarification or follow up questions - so if their specialty is graffiti ask whether they see themselves pursuing more of the artistic side of things or is this a commercial proposition?

Here are some other open-ended question prompts:

  • Tell me about...
  • How do you...
  • What inspired you to...
  • What's the best part of...
Vary Questions with Statements

Expressing an interest in others is a key part of making small talk and getting people to like you. But if you only ask questions without sharing anything about yourself, your contact with others will be more like interrogations than conversations. For the other party it might feel that you are not investing much in the interaction yourself and that they are doing all of the work rather than being engaged in a 2 sided interaction. To remain interesting, mix statements and your own ideas into the conversation along with your questions. And as with asking questions, to make sure that you’re making statements that encourage a response instead of putting up roadblocks or conversation stoppers.

Pay Attention

All of us experience times when we struggle to come up the next line of conversation and we are left sitting there awkwardly feeling the tension settle in. In such cases a little situational awareness can pull you out of any conversational dead zones.

To start with, look around. There’s almost always something around that can spark further conversation. You may ask a question about the event’s subject matter or even someone nearby. Something like: ‘What do you think that guy was thinking when he decided to wear shirt?’ Or if you have not done so already you can also share information about on how you both came to be there: ‘So how did you find out about this event?’

Another technique for escaping a conversational dry spell is to notice something about them, pay them a compliment on that and then follow this up with a question. If they have an interesting piece of jewellery for example, ask where they got it and if there’s a story behind it. If they organised the event you’re attending, pay a compliment about the set up and ask about some specific aspect. ‘So who did the catering?’ or ‘How did they decide on the keynote speaker?’

Another easy way to keep the conversation moving is to ask for advice on an issue – something that you know they have expertise or an interest in. By doing so, you’re giving the other person a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and skill which not only lets them talk about a topic they enjoy, but it strokes their ego a little. This is a great way to quickly build rapport with someone while you’re making small talk.

Listen Carefully

Apply the basics of active listening by focusing your full attention on your conversation partner (rather than looking around the rest of the room the next conversational opportunity or even worse the food tray), actively agreeing with what they say verbally or by nodding frequently and by taking what they say and rephrasing it in your own words while finding a way to relate to it. This demonstrates that you’re paying careful attention instead of just waiting for your turn to talk. It’s extremely gratifying when someone that we are talking to shows that they are actually listening to understand us and care about what we think. Active listening during small talk is a great way to build your social bonds with others even quicker.

Compliment and transition

Everyone loves compliments and if we dare to provide them that will usually leave a positive impression or memory with others. But often we are scared of giving compliments to those we don’t know well because we don't want to seen to be “creepy”. And we realise that many people don't know how to handle compliments - even if they appreciate them.

So after you compliment someone, immediately follow up with a question or statement that takes the focus away from your praise.

It could be something like, ‘I love your shirt’ followed by, "Where did you buy it?”

By asking ‘Where did you buy it?’ you are neutralising any potential awkwardness. If you were to pay someone a compliment and then just smile at them while you both stared at each other – that could become awkward very quickly. So briefly break eye contact with them while you ask your follow up question to alleviate the pressure. Small talk should be relaxed and natural. Eye contact does not have to be made the entire time.

Consolidating the Relationship

Unfortunately, many shy people fail to cement the bonds with likable people that they meet in social situations. So if you see value in a further level of acquaintance try to reinforce any new interactions that you have made by promising to follow up with an email about something topical that might be of use to them or connecting wit them on Linked In. Then make sure that you do that to double down on the interaction and further your network of acquaintances.

10 Tips to make Better Small Talk

When it comes to small talk, don't think you must say something strikingly intelligent each time you speak. Your words may be forgotten, but it is how you make people feel that will be remembered. Once you master the basics of small talk, you will look forward to engaging with other people in all sorts of environments.

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Author: John Richmond
Team Leadership Services