Mastering the art of small talk

Don't underestimate the importance of small talk . It can break the ice, open doors and connect strangers. Here’s how you do it.

Catherine Tenger
Tempo di lettura
10 minuto
Strangers during a business event
© GettyImages/Maskot

Does this sound familiar? After a long day at work, you find yourself at a networking event listening to an interesting presentation when the organizers announce that it’s time for the drinks reception. The guests start streaming out of the room looking for a glass of something and some conversation. Great, you think. Approaching a total stranger isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, so you would actually prefer to just have a quick drink and then disappear. Instead, you now have to start thinking about potential conversation starters and how to leave a conversation elegantly. 

Is small talk superficial? 

Many people dismiss small talk as being superficial, but it actually has an important function. It creates a good atmosphere and lays the groundwork for a more in-depth discussion. Small talk is a way to break the ice. It can be the first step in establishing a business relationship or an opportunity to get to know an interesting person. 

How do I start small talk?

Another misconception is that you need to have a hugely original opening sentence. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself! The most important thing is to connect with the other person. So even if it’s a business event, try to start with conversations about more personal things. That will help you create a connection – and the business-related topics will then come up on their own. 

But beware: don’t confuse personal (“I like to travel”) with private (“I’m in the middle of an inheritance dispute”).

Small Talk can be easy: A woman introduces herself
“I just heard you talking about good restaurants and thought: I definitely need to go introduce myself!” © GettyImages/Luis Alvarez

So how do I prepare to engage in small talk? 

Good conversation starters are topics that instantly create some sort of connection. And once you’ve done that successfully, you can start finding what you have in common with the other person. When you do, the conversation will start to flow.

You can find topics that create that instant connection with a bit of preparation. For example, some venues have an interesting history or are linked to events that you can use to start a conversation. Or if you receive an invitation to an event featuring guests or performances, see what you can find out about the speaker or performer and then talk about that.

Also, before you go, come up with some good answers to the questions that you are pretty much guaranteed to be asked. For example, if someone asks where you’re from, reformulate that question in your mind and make it more specific: “What brought you to where you are currently living?” Giving an unexpected response to a frequently asked question will change the dynamic of any conversation.  

How do I join a group?

Joining a group that is having an animated conversation can be difficult. After all, you don’t want to sneak into a discussion, but you also don’t want to be rude and interrupt anyone.

The trick is to figure out how you’re going to do it before you join them: get yourself a drink and take a quick look around the group. Identify who is speaking the most, and then approach the group from the side that puts you squarely in front of that person. Then, using friendly, open facial expressions and body language, let the group know that you intend to join them.

By the time you’re just a few steps away from them, the person speaking will usually have finished the sentence and will be the one to welcome you into the group. Also, start thinking about what you are going to say when you get a chance to speak. For example, “I just heard you talking about good restaurants and thought: I definitely need to go introduce myself!” Whatever you say should have something to do with the group or situation, and it should be genuine. Don’t use platitudes; no one likes them. If you know someone in the group, stand next to them and greet them quietly. The rest usually comes naturally.

Conversations at a business event
Small talk is also about finding what you have in common with the other person. © GettyImages/FilippoBacci

How do I leave a conversation? 

There are a few things you should keep in mind when you want to leave a conversation:

  • It’s easier to say goodbye when you have the floor than to wait for the other person to take a breath and then abruptly say, “I’m going to go now, goodbye.” Seamlessly adding a goodbye at the end of what you are saying as part of the conversation is the friendlier and classier option. And if you make reference to something that was discussed earlier in the conversation, you show your counterpart that you’ve been listening and leave them with a good feeling. For example, “It was nice talking to you. I thought what you said about the documentary series was really interesting. I will definitely look into it. I have to go now, I hope you have a great evening.” 
  • Remember to also non-verbally communicate the fact you want to say goodbye. Depending on the situation, you can do that by putting down your glass and moving away slightly – or the opposite: you can move closer to your counterpart and lift your hand towards them as if to touch them, or actually touch them. It all depends on your relationship with the person you’re talking to.

Small talk takes practice

Practice makes perfect. And thankfully, small talk is easy to practice – whether it’s with the salesperson at the flower shop, the mail carrier, the receptionist checking you into a hotel or the woman standing in front of you in the line at the grocery store. 

And remember: small talk isn’t just about talking, it’s also important to listen actively and show interest in the other person.  

About the author

Catherine Tenger provides training and gives seminars on presentation skills and communication. She is the author of Format, a book about the qualities that make people charismatic and engaging, and how these can be developed.

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