Career Advice
January 28, 2016

The Important Skill of Making Small Talk

The Important Skill of Making Small Talk

Knowing how to make small talk is a vital soft skill that can help you out in many situations. Nerve-wracking to many, it's actually easier than you think.

Whether it’s before a job interview, at an office party or anywhere else, knowing how to make small talk is an important skill. It’s vital for building and maintaining relationships but can be nerve-wracking. It doesn’t have to be, though. Use these tips to easily keep up a conversation.

Think of some topics in advance

There’s nothing worse than having a conversation fizzle out and being left frantically trying to think of something to say. Instead of having that happen, when you know you are going to be in a situation that will require small talk, plan ahead and come up with a few conversation topics. This way, you can avoid awkward silences. Remember, though, not all conversation topics are created equal. Here are some small talk topics that are great and some that you should avoid:

Good Topics:

Common acquaintances, The event you're at, An event (professional or otherwise) that you recently attended, A film you saw or book you read recently

Bad Topics:

politics, money, death, basically, anything where people have strong, varied opinions (e.g. abortion or religion)

Prepare some answers

As well as topics, you can prepare answers for the kind of small talk topics that frequently come up. Common small talk questions include “Do you have any holidays planned?” or “How has work been recently?”

Instead of responding with a single word, prepare one- or two-sentence replies. These answers should ideally disclose some information about you. That makes it easier for the other person to ask a follow-up question and keep the conversation going.

Be sure not to come across as presenting a canned response though. Providing a forced answer can come across as disingenuous or make both of you uncomfortable. To avoid this, prepare key points rather than rehearsing word-for-word answers.

Dive in

Be the one to start the conversation - the other person will appreciate it, believe me. They’ll be feeling just as much pressure as you and, by taking the lead, you remove that pressure for both of you.

If you do the opposite and wait for someone else to start talking, the pressure and nervousness will only build, making it even harder to have a good conversation when it does finally start.

Don’t ask “How are you?”

Although it seems like a natural opening, this tends to lead to short, closed responses, which will leave you immediately searching for another topic.Instead, try to ask something a bit more open-ended. You never know what interesting things you might learn in the process.

Ask open-ended questions

As mentioned above, open-ended questions are your best bet when making small talk. They give people an opportunity to be a bit more expansive in their answers and increase the likelihood that they will say something interesting enough to keep the conversation going naturally.

Encourage the other person to talk

People like to talk about themselves, so take advantage of that to keep the conversation going. Your open-ended questions should encourage the other person to start sharing stories. Now you just have to hope that they are entertaining.

Don’t make the other person do all the work

Make sure you don’t undermine all the other things you’re doing right by giving one-syllable responses. Engage with what the other person is saying and give detailed answers to any questions they ask.

Take one topic at a time

Don’t subject your conversation partner to a barrage of questions. Instead, listen to their answer to your first question and then follow up on that. You don’t get any points for the number of topics covered, so try to go deeper into each one.

Listen between the lines

Pay attention to the subtext of what someone is saying to help you steer the conversation. For example, if a person begins talking negatively about a certain topic, it’s probably one to avoid. Conversely, if they’re enthusiastic, keep going and explore the topic further.

Watch the person you’re talking to

Pay close attention to their body language. You may have had the experience that you really wanted to leave (because you needed to use the restroom or had an appointment to get to, for example), but your conversation partner was totally oblivious to your subtle hints and just kept on talking.

Don’t be that person. If you notice someone is drifting off or looks like his/her bladder is about to burst, give them an opening to leave and let them go. You’ll find someone new to talk to, don’t worry.

By putting just a little bit of thought into these things, you can leave people with a much better impression and go on to reap the rewards of their high regard for you.

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