Being an expert at making small talk is no small matter. While some people seem to have a flair for this conversational art, the good news is that the basics can be learnt and you definitely get better at it with practice. Here are a few tips on how to make small talk and reap big rewards, socially or professionally.
Before you set out, whether for a party or a date, decide on four generic questions that will get others talking or prepare three things to talk about. For instance if you know your host, try to think of something about him like his passion for a sport or a charity that you share. On the other hand, if you are meeting your host for the first time, compliments on the flower arrangement or questions on her favorite kind of music may help break the ice.
Take the initiative
Most often the simplest approach works best. Be the first to say ‘Hi’ and accompany it with a sincere smile. As social beings, people are conditioned to respond positively to civil overtures and most likely you will find the person before you doing the same. Introduce yourself clearly so that people know who they are talking to. At the same time, make an effort to remember names and use them frequently in your conversation.
Look for something in common
Get the other person to talk by making a statement or asking a question on something about the event or location that you have in common. For instance at a party you could ask a guest how he/she knows your host. Or at a professional networking event, you could begin with a general remark and then move on to a relatively open-ended question like “This year, attendance seems to be pretty high? How long have you been coming to these conventions?”
Being successful in the art of small talk at times requires you to be focused on what the person before you is saying. Maintain eye contact with your conversational partner and listen actively what he or she has to say. Avoid interrupting before they have finished and resist the temptation of finishing their sentences for them. A distracted or wandering gaze is not only impolite but will kill any chances of making small talk with the person who in turn might be tempted to move away.
Contribute as well
Once you have gone through the introductions and the person before you opens up, look for ways to build up the conversation. You can do this by making interesting observations on current events or cultural trends and inviting your conversational partner’s take on them. For instance remark on the growing popularity of extreme sports and ask your partner where their interests lie. Or you could ask them if they have caught the latest movie in the Twilight series and what they thought of it.
Avoid controversial topics
One of the basic rules while making small talk is to stick to what is casual and comfortable. This not only implies refraining from sensitive subjects like politics and religion but also from taking an explicitly politically incorrect stand, no matter where your personal commitments lie. Also avoid making negative comments about others as well as remarks with a sexual intent.
Don’t hog the conversation
While it is important to provide your own feedback, small talk is not about advertising yourself. Stay away from long-winded narratives about your childhood or professional achievements if you don’t want the listener to be bored to tears. Also it may be a good idea to keep minute details of your medical condition for a family member instead of a guest you have just met at a party. The whole idea is to keep the conversation comfortable and mutual so that each side leaves feeling pleased to meet the other person.
Watch your body language
People who are ill at ease often make others uncomfortable as well, thus effectively putting an end to any chances of a pleasant talk. Adopt a relaxed posture but don’t slouch. Even if you are nervous within, avoid drumming your fingers on the table, fidgeting with your tie or hair or shaking your leg. If you display such behavior, your listener might construe them as signs of boredom or anxiety on your part and be inclined to make a hasty retreat.
Ask to be introduced.
If there is someone at the event that you especially want to meet, one of the best ways to go about it would be to be introduced by your host. If it is a general get-together, look for mutual friend or acquaintance that the person respects and then ask him or her to do the honors.
Use tact when part of a group
If you are interested in joining an ongoing conversation or want to speak to someone who is part of it, do not interrupt but spend a few seconds in observing and listening. Wait until there is a slight pause in the talk and then introduce a well-judged observation at this moment. This will bring the attention of the group onto yourself besides enabling you to join the conversation with tact and finesse. Butting into an ongoing conversation on the other hand with an ill-timed or unsuitable remark will not only quash the dynamics but make you appear foolish or rude.
Have a few exit lines ready so that you and your conversation partner can gracefully move on. You could offer to refresh their drink or excuse yourself by saying, “I see a client/an old friend over there and I’d like to say hello to him”. However don’t forget to sign off before saying how nice it was to know the other person or re-connect with him/her if you were already acquainted from before. End your conversation by hoping that you can meet up again sometime soon.
Conversation experts point out that the secret to the art of small talk is to move away before things start getting boring or uncomfortable. Your objective in such social or semi-social encounters should be to make a good impression but not appear too familiar. Susan RoAne, author and speaker of Mingling Maven puts it rather succinctly as “Be bright. Be Brief. Be Gone”.