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[Speaking-Out-Loud April 2019] Tips for small talk - how to master the art of opening conversations
April 04, 2019

In this Issue

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Developing the art of conversation

How do you open a conversation with the person you don't know sitting beside you on the bus? What do you say when you see someone you think you'd like to meet? How do you break the ice?

This is the job of "small talk". It establishes contact and eases the way forward. It tests to see if there is a possibility of something more.

The importance of small talk

Although often derided for its blandness*, its trite or cliched topics, small talk handled well can become BIG or meaningful talk.

If you think about it nearly every important relationship you have outside of your family will have begun with some kind "small" exchange that grew. How did you meet your best friends? Your partner in life, or in business?

The ability to initiate conversations confidently and easily is life enhancing. It can open doors to relationships and opportunities we may have never have dreamed were possible.

Most people are nervous about chatting to people they don't know

When we allow yourselves to be limited by fear of rejection and self-consciousness we shut down possibilities and settle for the safety of the people and situations we already know.

The truth is that most people feel shy and self-conscious in a new setting, and they're grateful when someone takes the initiative to talk to them. Overcoming the temptation to close ourselves off takes a little courage. However the rewards can be extraordinary.

What is small talk?

Small talk gets its name because the talk, conversation, covers neutral or safe topics. Talking about the weather, (Very popular and one of the safest topics!), sports, what's been in the news, work, traffic, seasonal happenings, community events and of course the immediate situation you share: a meeting, supermarket queue, a waiting room, a party ... are neutral subjects. They're subjects you could reasonably expect most people to be able to comment on comfortably.

In contrast asking a person you've only just met for the first time whether they believe in God and why, what they think about abortion, or if they have a mortgage is not such a good idea.

These are personal topics and not usually discussed with strangers. Opening with one of these will make people feel uncomfortable. You're asking them to reveal too much of themselves to someone they don't know. Given the context the questions are inappropriate. The person on the receiving end of them will likely think you're weird for asking them.

How does small talk work?

First pick your person to talk to. You can lessen the likelihood of being ignored or brushed off by:

  • choosing someone who is by themselves, not busy and who appears open and friendly
  • making eye contact and smiling before you approach them.

Now use a greeting, then mix your choice of topic with open ended questioning, a sincere compliment and your small talk will grow.

Here's an example scenario

The setting is a cafeteria. You're at a conference and it's break time. There are many new people to meet but you would particularly like to talk to the guy who spoke on little blue widgets earlier. They've been a passion of yours for awhile and you're keen to know more. He's by himself over at the water cooler.

Your conversation opener may go like this:

'Hi, I'm Fred from XYC Company in Toronto. I really like these conferences and I particularly enjoyed your talk about little blue widgets. What else can you tell me about them? I'm keen to hear what you've got to say.'

In this scenario the mutual meeting place, the conference, is acknowledged. (This is the link between you.) You've introduced and placed yourself (company and city details), given a compliment ('I really enjoyed your talk'), and asked an open-ended question, 'What else can you tell me about them?'

The open-ended question invites more than a one word answer. When that's coupled with a sincere and appropriate compliment it increases the chances of conversation.

More examples of open-ended conversation starters

Other open ended starters you could use after your initial greeting are variations on:

  • What was the best part of...
  • How did you feel about...
  • What brought you to...
  • What’s surprised you most...
  • How similar/different is that to...
  • Why do you think that...

Practice everyday!

Like most new skills the art of opening a conversation with someone you don't know will feel a little forced or awkward at first. The trick is to practice. Use the everyday opportunities that present themselves to refine your approach.

Here's an example from what was my Monday to Friday life when I lived in Wellington (the capital city of New Zealand) and took an early morning bus to work.

I traveled with a group of people I called my 'bus buddies'. The initial small talk beginning our conversations soon gave way to interesting chats about all sorts of things - life in China, books, films, living with an autistic child, making costumes, teaching reading to five year old children...

Those connections were an incredibly diverse wonderful group of people. Through them I organised for a class of high school students to visit the New Zealand ballet costume room, found the names of the right people to talk to about help with English for a family of relatively recent immigrants, and discovered that there was a small specialist art-house movie theater in the next suburb to where I lived.

What happens if you get brushed off?

What happens if you get little more than a grunt type answer? Or if the person you chosen to approach makes it clear by folding their arms and fishing their phone out their pocket that they do not want to talk?

Nothing. You've simply tried to connect with someone who doesn't want to chat right now. Their lack of response is not a judgement about you. You do not know what is going on for them because you are not a mind reader! Maybe they are too busy thinking about something important that has just happened or is going happen. Maybe they are exhausted and need a break. Maybe...

It could be any number of things and it's about 99% certain that none of them have anything to do with you.

Persevering when someone has made it reasonably clear they don't wish to engage can be perceived as pushy, or even rude. The best and most sensible thing to do is accept that the person doesn't want to engage and move on.

Find another person to talk with.

Know the enemy

Today the biggest barrier to striking up a conversation with someone we don't know is not shyness. It's a phone.

People in queues, waiting at bus stops, sitting on a park bench, on a train or on a bus are too busy checking on what their current group of friends and acquaintances are doing to make themselves available to meet new ones.

I know because I do it myself. I also know when I put it away I am more likely to get into conversations with the people around me.

More on communication skills

If you found this information on small talk useful you would probably also like the page it was drawn from on the importance of communication skills. I've laid out 5 easily managed steps to improve them.

* Small talk may be about the weather, the latest news, fashion .... However most people will recognize it for what it is: a friendly attempt to establish mutual grounds to open a conversation. If it is successful the initial topic - the weather, the traffic, will soon lead into something more meaningful and interesting for both of you.

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Farewell speeches

When you leave a job you'll often be asked to say a few words - to give a farewell speech.

And maybe that's the last thing you want to think about and prepare. Because you have so much else to fit in before you go, and so little time to do it all in.

Is that you? If you need a farewell speech try my Speech Builder. It will help you prepare a good original speech very quickly.

Spend approximately 15 minutes and $9.99 US and you'll have your speech ready to go.

Farewell speech builder offer

Comment, share & connect

If you've got comments, feedback or questions you're most welcome to contact me through my about me page.

If you liked this issue of Speaking-Out-Loud, please feel free to send it on to any friends or family. The site url to forward so they can subscribe is Speaking-Out-Loud.

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Until next time,
Happy speaking,


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