How to Make Small Talk
Making Connections and Creating Opportunity
What does the phrase "small talk" mean to you? Maybe you think of it as a "starter" to enjoy before the main business of a discussion. Perhaps it brings to mind throwaway chats about the weather at the coffee machine, or in the office elevator, on a Monday morning. Or perhaps you have a horror of it, and see it as difficult, artificial or trivial?
Small talk comes easily to some people. They never seem short of things to say and can strike up a conversation in almost any situation. For other people, though, making small talk is something that eludes them. They can be in a room with people they are keen to speak to, but the words just refuse to come out.
If you struggle to make small talk, don't worry – it's a skill that you can learn. In this article, we explore how you can make small talk, and how it can benefit you at work and in your social life. We also look at how to avoid some conversational pitfalls.
What Is Small Talk?
Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski was the first person to study small talk, back in 1923. He described it as "purposeless expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, [and] comments on what is perfectly obvious." In other words, speaking for the sake of being sociable, rather than to communicate information.
Small talk can be all of these things. But, far from being shallow or superficial, it's one of the most underrated of communication skills. It is hugely important in many business cultures, and it can be a critical ingredient in both networking and your day-to-day life.
Why Is Small Talk So Important?
The importance of small talk in the workplace lies in the bonds it creates, rather than the actual words that are spoken.
Simply chatting with colleagues and clients can build good relationships, and making positive connections can win over potential customers. And it can build and strengthen your social connections.
Making a good first impression can get business encounters off to a great start. Knowing how to make small talk can help you to achieve this by building rapport and trust with the people you're talking to.
Small talk can carry you beyond just making a good first impression, too. For example, a little small talk with a potential client could lead to more serious discussions about doing business together.
How to Make Small Talk
Making small talk might be something that you dread, or something that you're comfortable with. Either way, it's a skill that you can learn and improve upon. There are three steps to developing your ability to make small talk: be prepared, start talking, and do it again!
A little homework will likely have a big payoff and will give you the confidence to engage in small talk. If you have prepared a few things to say, you'll feel more able to strike up a conversation with someone, or join in with a discussion that's already flowing. Here are a few things to consider:
- Take the pressure off yourself: try to think positively. You're just looking to make a good impression and create a connection with someone, not to score an instant sale.
- Start small: practice casual greetings, compliments and smiles whenever you get the chance. Build up slowly by throwing in a question or two.
- Get informed: nothing saps your confidence during small talk more than having nothing to say, so try to stay up to date with what people may be talking about. This can include news stories, local events, sports, and industry news.
- Prepare an introduction: the most common question people ask is, "So, what do you do?" Respond with a brief but punchy reply that invites more questions. For example, say, "I train graduate sales recruits and help them to find their strengths," rather than the dull, "I'm in sales." Leaving people wanting to know more enables you to get your small talk off to a good start, and really connect with them.
- Prepare some strong openers: here are a few questions you can ask to start a conversation:
- "What do you love about your job/this event/this city?"
- "What's the most exciting thing that you've heard here today?"
- "How did your last session go?"
- "What's the best thing that's happened to you today?"
- "Where did you last hear a presentation as interesting as that?"
You may consider rehearsing possible introductions or conversation starters before you arrive at an event. And you can think about picking up conversation points at the event itself. For example, you may hear something during a session that would make a good topic to talk about with your fellow attendees during a break.
Once you feel ready to take the plunge, you just need to start talking! You can initiate a conversation or join one that's already underway.
So, how do you get started? First, be alert for opportunities – listen for chances to connect with other people. For example, if you hear someone mention that he or she drives the same model of car as you, or supports the same hockey team, use that as a way into a conversation.
Second, if you feel anxious or nervous, use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and centering to reduce stress. If you are relaxed, you'll come across more natural and confident.
Use the A-R-E Method
As your confidence and small talk skills develop, start more conversations. This will allow you to guide and sustain discussions, rather than just participate in them. Voice coach Dr Carol Fleming suggests the three-step A-R-E method for reaching this point:
- Anchor: make a brief observation about a shared experience to another person as the starting point of your small talk. This can be something as casual as, "What a beautiful day," or, "The food here is amazing."
- Reveal: try to establish a connection with him. For example, saying, "The weather here last year was terrible," or, "I've eaten at some great restaurants but this place comes out on top," reveals something about yourself and gives him a chance to respond.
- Encourage: ask a question to draw him in, such as, "Were you at the conference last year?" or, "How do you rate it?"
Exhibit Positive Body Language
Your body language can impact the success of your small talk. Adopt a posture and use gestures that show you're approachable, positive and enthusiastic. For example, stand up straight, use a firm handshake, maintain good eye contact, and avoid touching your face (as this is a sign of dishonesty).
Leave on a High
Finally, don't spend too long with one person or group – both of you may want to speak with other people, too. Keep exchanges brief, then you can either end your conversation politely or excuse yourself from a group chat.
When you disconnect from a conversation, do so in a way that doesn't leave anyone feeling hurt or ignored, and that leaves the door open to speaking again. Waiting for a lull and then returning to the subject that you opened with is a respectful and polite way to bring small talk to a close. For example, if you started by saying, "Where did you last hear a presentation as interesting as that?" you could close with, "The next speaker is on soon. Let's hope that she's just as good." Then use a positive exit line such as, "I must go and find a seat. It was really great talking to you. I hope we can chat again." And take your leave with a smile and maybe a handshake.
Do It Again!
The more often you engage in small talk, the more natural you'll find it becomes. Taking opportunities to talk with colleagues, friends, family, and even complete strangers will help you to strengthen your skills.
When you engage in small talk, watch how the other person behaves and listen mindfully to how she speaks. Take note of her body language, the subjects that she likes to discuss, and the way that she talks. Her tone, assertiveness and questioning style can also give you insights into what works and what doesn't.
Avoiding Small Talk Pitfalls
Small talk, in general, involves "light" topics of conversation. These types of conversations are often quite short, but, despite this, there are still some subjects and behaviors that could trip you up. For example, don't talk about yourself too much. As fascinating as you might think you are, don't hog the conversation! Show an interest in the people you are talking to, and let them be part of the conversation.
Also, steer clear of controversial or provocative subjects. Keep things friendly and light. It might be wise to avoid subjects such as religion or politics, in case you unintentionally cause offence.
If you're working in a new or unfamiliar country, read up on its approach to small talk and be aware of any potential cross-cultural differences. In the U.S., for instance, it's an important part of business culture, and the British are famously skilled at it, but Germans generally prefer to get straight to the point. Meanwhile, in hierarchical societies, such as Japan and India, engaging your superiors in small talk is deemed inappropriate.
Small talk is a crucial tool for finding common ground with other people by exploring personal interests and ideas. It can open the door to more substantial and meaningful communications as relationships are created and developed.
Small talk often plays a hugely important role in the workplace. Its content is less important than its role of creating, building and maintaining connections between people.
Making small talk is a skill that you can learn. Effective preparation is essential, as is openness, curiosity, self-awareness, and the ability to listen.