Congratulations! You’ve survived “small-talk season,” a month chock-full of holiday office parties, open houses and other festive gatherings. Unless you share Stephen Colbert’s gift of gab, it can be a struggle when it comes to initiating small talk that flows into congenial conversation.
Like it or not, small talk is a skill that’s often integral to your social and vocational success, and for many of us it’s a skill we could use year-round. Here are some tips to help you channel your inner Colbert — minus, of course, the obvious no-no of discussing politics.
Begin With The End in Mind
Before you even walk in to a new client dinner meeting, social gathering, or event you’re attending solo, spend a little time reviewing who you are most likely to meet and what your goals are for your interactions. For instance, if you’re attending an annual neighborhood party, maybe you want to make sure you connect with folks you already know, as well as meet one or two new people. If it’s a networking event, your goal might be to make a memorable business connection with six new people. Knowing your objectives can make small talk feel more meaningful and make you feel more relaxed.
Debra Fine, lecturer and author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” says, “As I drive to a party, I try to come up with two or three things to talk about in case the conversation runs dry. If I’ve met the host before, I try to remember things about her, like her passion for skiing or a charity we were both involved in.”
It’s Not About You
The reason you’re talking small in the first place is to actually get to know someone else. These strategies will help others open up to you:
- Put away your phone. Really, just do it. Only then will you be able to give someone your full attention and the right impression that you are all-in on meeting them.
- Smile as you introduce yourself with a warm handshake, hug, or peck on the cheek — whatever greeting fits the occasion and your shared familiarity. Try to casually repeat their name to help you remember it; doing so is noted as nice by most people. “A golden rule (of small talk) is that you don’t have to be brilliant―just nice,” says Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast.
Most people enjoy talking about themselves, so ask them open-ended questions. These can be questions tied to the venue or occasion, such as the food or ambience of the place. You can ask about common acquaintances, interests or vocational connections that might have brought them there. Or, you can even delve into what they like to do with their free time, such as favorite podcasts, what they’re binge-watching on Netflix, movies, books, plays, sports, restaurants, travel, etc.
Actively listen to their answers, and then ask a follow-up question or offer something about yourself that directly connects with what they’ve shared.
Still not sure what to ask? Try one of these:
- “How did you end up at [name of event] or know the host?”
- “What’s been the highlight of your [day, week, month] so far?”
- “That [food or drink they’re holding] looks good; would you recommend it?”
- “What’s the last movie you saw, book you read, etc.? What did you think?”
- “How did you choose to work in [field]? If you could go back in time, would you make that same choice again or advise your kids to go into [field]?”
- “When was the last time you did something for the first time? Were you glad you tried it?”
- “That dress/jacket/bag is stunning, I’d love to know where you like shopping?”
Don’t fret pauses in conversation that might just be someone gathering their thoughts before answering.
Know When to Fold ‘Em
Even great conversations need comfortable conclusions. The easy ones will tap into the highlights of your chat, and might lead to a shared desire to connect further and you can swap contact information. Bumpy conversations can be brought to a smooth stop with something along the lines of, “Great to meet you and hear about [X], but I need to grab a bite/drink/the host/that colleague over there.” And, remember, the occasional faux pas happens to everyone. Just go with the flow of each conversation, being mindful of when it’s time to move on.