Small talk. Some people love it, some people barely notice it’s happening, others will do anything they possibly can to avoid it - whether that’s hiding in the toilet, mindlessly scrolling through your phone or hovering by the bar pretending to be otherwise engaged. If you’re in the latter category, read this blog for some quick tips to master the art of small talk.
As with many situations that require putting yourself out there, like a presentation or a speech, small talk is often exacerbated by the negative thoughts that build up in our heads. This can make the situation bigger and scarier than it needs to be. If you hate small talk, you might recognise some of these thoughts:
“I must look so awkward right now.”
“I’m such an embarrassment.”
“Why can’t I think of anything to say?”
“I’m so bad at this.”
If these are familiar, try this simple reframing technique. If you notice a negative thought, try to swap it with a positive one:
“I’m an interesting person with plenty to contribute.”
“The anxiety is coming from my brain, not the situation. I look confident from the outside.”
“I’m more capable than I think.”
“I’m not the only person here who feels nervous. If I strike up a conversation with someone, they’ll feel grateful.”
Even if you don’t entirely believe these statements yet, the positive self talk will give you a boost and get you feeling more comfortable when it comes to making small talk. Scientific studies have shown that how we talk to ourselves has a huge impact on our confidence levels.
2. Go in with purpose
Small talk can often feel like useless chatter - do you really need to have yet another easily forgettable conversation about the weather, or what you do for work? Believe it or not, small talk is much more than this. It helps build the foundation for deeper connections and authentic conversations, which ultimately lead to relationships that might serve you for years to come. Once you start building rapport and trust with someone, you can start moving into more meaningful conversations. Think of the chit chat as a bowl of nuts that whets your appetite before diving into the main course! It’s really just a warmup that’s necessary before getting into proper conversation.
Try setting yourself a clear goal - maybe you commit to meeting three new people at a barbecue, or you exchange contact details with five other professionals at a networking event.
3. Get curious
“To be interesting, be interested.” - Dale Carnegie
Introverts tend to be curious people, keen to move past the shallow chat and delve into deeper topics that interest them. Don’t be afraid to show enthusiasm and channel your natural curiosity when it comes to small talk. If you show genuine interest in what they’re saying, you’ll invite further discussion and get off on the right foot for future conversations. You never know, you might just find something in common and bond over that similarity.
4. Ask questions
Introverts tend to hate the feeling of being in the spotlight, and would much rather direct the attention to someone else. A simple way to ensure this is to ask questions. Questions are powerful rapport builders because a genuine question is like a statement of interest, and that marks the beginning of a connection. Not to mention it takes the limelight off you for a short while! If you feel uncomfortable mid-conversation, ask more questions and subtly turn the attention away from yourself. A question conveys to the other party, ‘I want to know what you think’ or ‘I want to know more about you.’ Open questions can be more powerful than closed questions because you are inviting the other party to go further than a yes or no answer. Try using questions that start with ‘how’, ‘what’ or why’ - these tend to require more than one word answers. Here are a few small talk questions to get you started:
5. Add spice
Whilst it’s a good idea to ask questions, if you’re more comfortable moving the spotlight from you to them it’s also important to share a bit of yourself when the moment feels right. When you’re asked a question, try to avoid one-word answers - these are almost guaranteed to make the conversation fizzle out. Instead, embellish your responses with a bit of spice - this might be a snippet of a story, a personal opinion, a funny anecdote or an observation. Remember – it’s the detail that is unique to you that makes people interested. This is where people laugh, smile and feel connected.
For example, rather than responding to "how was your journey here?" with "good thanks", try going for a more interesting and thoughtful response by including a snippet of detail - "it was lovely thanks. I decided to get off the tube a couple of stops early so I could walk along the riverfront, and I’m glad I did because there was a parade happening which was really exciting".
6. Match their energy
If you are walking with a 90-year-old woman with a hip replacement, you would slow down... right? Small talk is much the same. If someone is speaking slowly and with low energy, then you will be hard pushed to build rapport if you’re rattling on at high speed. Equally, if they’re excitable and extroverted, use your body language to get on their level. You want to make an effort to meet them where they are in order to connect. You will find that by simply switching on your awareness of how the other person is speaking, you can assess what tone of voice, pace and volume suits the situation. As long as you are in the general ballpark, you will be en route to building rapport.
7. Notice other people
The real craft of making someone feel important is to pay them good-quality attention. People love to feel noticed. Numerous studies have shown that people are motivated and work harder when they feel attention and interest from others. You can ‘notice’ people in so many ways, from remembering important occasions, to referencing something they said or complimenting an outfit or hairstyle. If you can show someone that you are interested in them, you’ll go a long way towards making them interested in you.
8. Don't forget to smile!
Use your smile to make a first impression on someone - you will be surprised by its power. But the smile has to be genuine to be really effective. Genuine smiles are good for making an instant positive impression. We are naturally more drawn to smiley people. Not only does a genuine smile have a positive effect on people receiving it, but as it is linked to the part of the brain that manages positive emotions, we also know that it can make the smiler feel good too!
9. Listen with your body
When someone actively listens, they are giving lots of nonverbal signals that they are interested in what the speaker is saying. Eye contact, open body language, small filler sounds – all of these make up active listening. If none of these are present, then it can get pretty uncomfortable for the speaker. However, if active listening does happen, the speaker will usually respond like an unfurling flower; they will give more information, become more colourful and expansive, and more receptive to the listener.
10. Rehearse conversation openers
Just like it’s important to practise your speech or presentation out loud, this can be done with small talk too. You might feel silly when practising alone at home, but this is a guaranteed way to build up the muscle memory and help the words flow when you get to the real thing. You can practise in less intense scenarios too - why not set yourself the challenge to make meaningful small talk every day? This could be with your colleagues, a shop assistant, the train conductor or a family member you haven’t spoken to for a while. It’s fine to have a few conversation openers up your sleeve - this will not only help you start great conversations, but also relieve some of the anxiety of walking into a new environment. Here are some good small talk topics to start building on:
- TV shows
- Weekend plans
- Exciting work projects
Ultimately, be kind to yourself and remember there’s no pressure to suddenly be super entertaining and full of energy. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re the only one in the room that’s nervous, or that everyone is noticing your awkwardness and nerves. There’s no one answer to mastering the art of small talk, but hopefully these tips help you get the most from it. Good luck!