Do you marvel at those people who just always have something to say that’s insightful and precise and makes you feel really understood and heard? This is the art of small talk.
Often people think that small talk is about the weather, about how somebody is dressed or the event, when in actual fact, small talk is targeted talk about the subject at hand based on the situation or context you find yourself in.
Small talk is about building relationships and engaging in something that is of interest to the other party. The ‘game’ is to create a longer conversation that is memorable for all the right reasons.
Here is our first warning:
There used to be a clear rule: Never discuss politics, religion or sex but as our society has changed, these rules have relaxed. Yet this is still good advice. The chances are you have strong views on your politics, for example, and hence it is easy to alienate someone or make the other person feel uncomfortable.
Small talk is the art of building rapport and making others feel important. Therefore, while you might have opinions about a number of ‘hot’ topics try instead to focus these conversations where it is easier to not offend. Start with the purpose of the function itself, mutual acquaintances, other likely shared interests.
Holidays are great topics, as are books recently read. Try to ask open questions (those that require more than a yes/no answer) as these allow people to engage with the conversation beyond opinion alone.
So while it may be tempting to talk about the weather or even the food that you’re eating it can be really valuable to stop and think about what has brought the group together. For example if it is a fundraising dinner then conversations about use of those funds or the cause are good places to start. Also your connection to being there can be a great opener.
If it is a work function stay away from gossip, think instead of interesting things that you might have heard that are public comment such as what the company is planning to do or something that your team might have recently been working on. Use the opportunity to learn about others and promote who you are and what you are doing (just a little bit!)
When meeting people or introducing people, look to make connections between them. Remember introduce the most junior people first i.e "CEO, meet Ms New Employee", not the other way around (check out our making awesome introductions information for more on this). Look to see what they might have in common so it gives both parties a place to ‘launch the conversation’.
Think about the lines a good conversationalist might use to start a conversation. Then, to get really good at small talk, practice, practice, practice - a lot! Find places to practice from the people you buy coffee from, to the people that you might see daily as you wait for the train, to the person you ride the elevator with.
It’s really easy to strike up a conversation when you actually think about it. In ‘40 seconds’ or less: “Hi, that looks like an interesting book …" You never know who you might meet and what you might learn.