In this new article you’ll learn how to make small talk. Many people dread small talk because they do not feel that they are good at it. The prospect of spending two hours at a cocktail party mingling with cocktail parties can inspire dread, as can the prospect of spending an afternoon visiting with in-laws.
Small talk, however, is like any other skill – it can be learned. It took me years to learn the simple keys contained in this article, but you can learn them in a few minutes and start having more effective and enjoyable small talk today.
This skill will help you succeed professionally and in your social life, but it will also make life more enjoyable. Conversations do not have to be painful tests of endurance. They can actually be enjoyable if you will implement the five keys contained in this article.
How To Make Small Talk:
1. Know Your Objective
Imagine that you have decided to write your autobiography. What would happen to your writing process if you decided on a theme (e.g., “how I have overcome adversity in my life”) as opposed to just doing open-ended writing? Would choosing a theme for your story make it easier or harder to write?
For most people, it would be much easier to write with a theme, because the theme would dictate what you must put in or leave out of the story (e.g., “Should I include a chapter about the time when I went fishing with Uncle Ed? No, that one really isn’t about overcoming adversity.”) Without a theme, you would have no standard to decide whether to include a particular event.
The same is true of small talk. If you want to automatically know what to say to someone in a particular conversation, start by choosing an objective for the conversation.
Your objective could be as simple as impressing the other person. Other possibilities include (a) finding the answer to a specific question, (b) learning about the other person, or (c) arranging a future meeting.
In the course of the conversation, your objective will probably become obvious to the other person, so be sure to choose a non-embarrassing objective. The fact that you are pursuing an objective, however, will help both conversation participants avoid the awkwardness of aimless speaking. The objective will create the sense that this conversation is going somewhere.
2. Canned Stories
When I was in business school getting ready to interview for jobs, the career counselors taught me to prepare for interviews by having ten canned stories from my prior work experience that illustrated certain points about me. For example, I had one story to show that I was hardworking, another to show that I was a team player, and so on. Following their advice helped me perform well in interviews and land a job I loved.
This technique also works for small talk. Have a number of stories (ten is a good number) that you can access from memory at any time. These should be really good stories – not just time fillers. Choose ten stories that are compelling and will be interesting to listeners.
These stories do not have to be from your own life – they could be interesting stories you saw in the news instead. The best stories, however, are things that you have experienced that will interest others.
When you find yourself in a conversation that is lagging or getting dull, insert one of your canned stories that is appropriate to the conversation.
There is one major pitfall to be aware of with this strategy, though: People do not like to hear the same story twice. Your canned stories will work well when you are speaking with people for the first time, but if you are also in the company of long-time associates be careful not to bore them with a repeat.
3. Choosing Partners
One time, I was trying to establish a friendship with a colleague, and seemed to be making no headway. At home, I would complain to my wife about how the man would not give me the time of day, and I would try to figure out what I could do to change that.
Finally, exhausted by my complaining, my wife told me about the bestselling book “He’s Just Not That Into You.” I didn’t read it, but my understanding is that it suggests to women that if a man they are pursuing romantically will not reciprocate, they should just walk away and pursue one of the other billions of men out there. This was good advice for me, and I began looking to other colleagues for connections.
The advice also works in the world of small talk. Sometimes you are simply stuck speaking to someone (e.g., a relative or employer) whether you like it or not. But usually you get to choose who to engage in small talk.
At a cocktail party (or other open social event), you might find yourself speaking with someone who is just not interested in you, no matter what you say or do. The problem is not that you are uninteresting – the problem is that your conversation partner has chosen to not be interested in you. In that situation, you should generally simply end the conversation and go speak with one of the dozens of other people in the room.
Instead of trying to change people into the types of people who will enjoy speaking with you, seek out people who are naturally inclined to like you. They will usually be the easiest people to find, because they will tend to be in the same places as you, doing the same things you do.
The most important part of a conversation opener is your body language. If you offer a firm handshake, smile, and confident posture, what you say is not horribly important. But of course it is easier to be confident and smiley if you have something worthwhile to say. Here are some suggestions:
The traditional opener (“Hi, I’m…” followed by the other person introducing him/herself) is
okay. When meeting someone new it is hard to avoid this exchange-of-names ritual, because both people want to know who their conversation partner is.
The key to the effective opener is what comes next. After exchanging introductions, you should immediately offer a topic of obvious mutual interest. For example, if you are at a professional meeting, mingling between sessions, it would be easy to ask, “So what did you think of that first speaker?”
In small talk situations with people you already know, it is fairly natural to ask a question about a topic of general interest that is in the news (e.g., “What do you think about North Korea’s missile test?”).
Ending a conversation can be awkward because the conclusion of the exchange signals that one party is not interested in speaking any longer, while the other party might wish to continue. How do you exit gracefully when you really want to go?
One easy closing is the “prior commitment.” If you are at a lunch with a colleague and you wish to exit the conversation, you can look at your watch and say, “Oh, wow – I have a phone conference back at the office at 1:00. I need to go.” This is unlikely to offend anyone.
In an open-ended cocktail party where you wish to leave one conversation to strike up others, you can use a similar closing by citing the need to get more food or drink: “If you will excuse me – I skipped lunch today, so I really need to grab some food,” or “I think I’m going to go grab another drink.”
In either case, end with a nicety such as, “It was a pleasure speaking with you.” Conclusions
The five keys contained in this article are the tools you need to start excelling at small talk. Learning these keys is step 1 on your journey to conversation proficiency. Step 2 is implementation.
Take the ideas you have learned here and use them in conversation as soon as possible. For the next few weeks, see your small talk opportunities as a classroom – an opportunity to hone your skills for future use.
By improving your small talk skill, you will open yourself up to new friendships, better relationships, and a world of interesting engagement.
I want to thank you for taking the time to read my article about how to make small talk. I sincerely hope its contents have been a good help to you.