How to Master Small Talk

small talk

There are going to be times when you find yourself in situations that call for small talk. These situations include networking events, first dates, social functions, conversations with co-workers or potential clients, or even conversations with friends and family at events like weddings and funerals.

The term small talk refers to the polite conversations you have with other people on light, general, universal, and non-confrontational discussion topics. Many people often feel awkward making small talk with another person because it feels forced and manufactured and something to do to fill the odd silence that exists when standing within someone’s personal space.  However, small talk is better than no talk. (Just try to imagine how much more awkward it would be to stand next to someone at an event and not talk.)

So how do you make the entire interaction less awkward? What do you do when there are lulls in the conversation? 

Follow the FORD technique.

The FORD technique is perfect when you’re talking with someone on a topic that is coming to a close and you sense an awkward lull in the conversation.  (You can only talk about the weather for so long, right?)  As soon as you sense that silence approaching, hit the person with one of these topics:  Family, Occupation, Recreation, Dreams.  

It’s amazing how easy it is to jump start a conversation by asking simple questions like “So do you have any kids?  Oh yeah?  How old are they?  How stressful is it working full-time and raising two young kids?” One of the things that helps me is to ask questions in the specific order F-O-R-D. The reason is because it’s easier for people to answer simple questions about their families. When they gradually feel more comfortable with you, then you can move into questions of occupation, recreation, and dreams which are increasingly more personal in nature. Occupation questions include finding out what someone does for a living, how he enjoys work, and interesting projects he may be working on. Recreation questions deal with things the other person likes to do for fun, how they spend their spare time, and things that interest them. Dream questions are asked after you two have been talking for a while and have learned a few things about each other. These include questions such as “What do you see yourself doing five years from now?  Do you think you’ll ever move to Costa Rica?  So what do you plan to do when your kids go away to college?”

Focus the conversation on the other person instead of on yourself.

As you can probably tell from the FORD technique above, the key to maintaining small talk is to redirect the conversation to the other person. By constantly placing the ball in her court, you take the pressure off of you, while simultaneously coming across as someone who listens and genuinely cares about other people. It sounds counterintuitive, but the less you actually speak, the more you appear to be a great conversationalist. Many people love to hear themselves talk, and their favorite topics are usually their own lives.

Ask questions, especially follow-up and open-ended questions.

Imagine this scenario. You’re standing next to someone at a networking event, each of you holding a saucer of hors d’oeuvres. You ask the person his name and what he does for a living, and he says “I’m John. I’m an insurance salesman.” And then nothing. You both stand there awkwardly chomping on miniature spinach quiche. One reason for the awkward silence is because you really didn’t give John the insurance salesman an interesting question to answer. Assume that questions which require simple one-word answers will likely create those silences, especially if you’re standing next to an introvert. Ask John the insurance salesman follow-up questions like “Oh yeah? What kind of insurance policies–life, auto, home?” And then dip into the open-ended questions which require more than yes-or-no answers such as “I’m curious. What’s the hardest part about working in the insurance industry?”

In fact, when I’m stuck and don’t know what to say, I always ask someone “What’s the hardest part about _______?” For example, suppose you meet a young lady and she tells you she’s a hairstylist. Your very next response should be “Really? What’s the hardest part about being a hairstylist?” (There are two reasons why this works every single time. Reason #1: Most people love talking about themselves. Reason #2: Most people like to complain.)

You really have to use enthusiasm and body language.

Take a look at the questions I asked John the insurance agent above. I could’ve simply asked John “What kind of insurance policies?” But I started with the “Oh yeah?” The reason is because I understand how effective enthusiasm can be at subconsciously coaxing someone to engage further in conversation. Also, take a look at that conversation again. I also don’t say in a monotone, uninterested voice “What’s the hardest part about working in the insurance industry?” That little phrase “I’m curious” at the beginning helps me encourage him a bit more. Part of being a master at small talk is using body language, enthusiasm, and your tone of voice to subconsciously encourage more participation from the person you’re speaking with.

Homework: Go practice your small talk skills.

Now that you’re equipped with small talk strategies and techniques, your mission this week is to visit the nearest mall and engage in small talk with five different people. Here are the rules.

  • You can have conversations with five different people on the same day, or just practice once per day.  
  • Each conversation has to last a minimum of four minutes.
  • Each conversation has to be with someone you’ve never met before.
  • Try to speak naturally from a genuine interest in the other person’s responses.

If you’re nervous, try practicing first with store employees rather than other customers or strangers in the food court. Store employees (especially in clothing stores) are actually trained to participate in some of these conversations because they’re hoping for more sales. In fact, if you engage in small talk with store employees, you may find yourself on the receiving end of the techniques I explained to you above. Imagine how strange it would be for you and a store employee to keep trying to redirect the conversation back toward the other person. It would feel like verbal volleyball.  

But your mission is to practice anyway. If you can, try to gradually expand your comfort zone by chatting for more than four minutes, or by talking with customers instead of employees, or by only chatting with the most attractive women you can find. The point is to stretch your comfort zone and practice.

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