No one really likes making small talk – except, I suppose for the rare extrovert who’s done amazing things with his life and can’t wait to share with others. But for the rest of us, carrying out these frequently-tedious conversations is, at worst, a waste of time and, at best, a part of the relationship building process that simply can’t be avoided.
And since there’s no way to avoid it (short of holing up at home and living out your remaining years like Howard Hughes), you’re better off making an effort to improve your small talk skills. To help get you started, here are a few specific prompts that you can keep in your back pocket and pull out whenever awkward conversations start to get the best of you:
Prompt #1 – “What are you up to these days?”
Simple, yet effective. What I love about this small talk prompt is that it provides your networking contact with the flexibility to take the conversation in any direction he chooses – whether that’s “shop talk” about his job or more personal details about his home life.
It also meets the key small talk criteria of being an open ended question. Worded a different way, as “Are you keeping busy these days?” gives conversation partners the easy out of a “yes or no” question, which should be avoided at all costs when it comes to small talk!
Prompt #2 – “Have you seen the recent news story about…?”
Discussing world events can provide a nice, arbitrary place to begin a small talk conversation (especially if you don’t know your networking contact well enough to inquire about his personal life). But be cautious!
As with all light conversations, the subjects of religion, politics and money should be avoided at all costs. This is sort of a no-brainer, but saying something like, “I can’t wait for Obama/Romney to win the election” isn’t likely to keep your conversation smoothly. Instead, stick to lighter news topics – like whether you expect the Giants or the Tigers to win the World Series.
Prompt #3 – “How do you know the hosts?”
If you’re mingling at a private party, asking new conversation partners how they’ve arrived at the event can be both a good conversation starter and a useful way to learn new things about the people in your life.
For example, if you’re at a party thrown by your boss and ask a fellow attendee how he knows your supervisor, you may be surprised to find out that their initial introduction happened on a deep sea fishing expedition. With this new piece of information, you’ve now got a conversation starter to use with your boss, should you ever need to make polite conversation.
Prompt #4 – “How long have you been in the area?”
When it comes to small talk, keep in mind that most people really enjoy talking about themselves – they often just need a little prompting to get started!
For this reason, asking about a person’s origins can be a fun one. Most people will jump at the chance to share how their personal histories led them to your town, potentially setting off an interesting and lengthy conversation.
Prompt #5 – “What do you do for fun?”
Yes, this one can backfire – as you’ll occasionally use it on the type of “all work, no play” person who can’t wait to tell you about how he’s just too busy to have fun these days.
However, in most cases, asking people about the hobbies they’re into provides great fodder for conversation and may even garner you some great recommendations on fun things to do in your area.
Prompt #6 – “Really? Tell me more about that…”
This prompt isn’t a conversation starter, but it’s a great phrase to pull out later on in order to keep your interactions going.
As an example, if a networking contact responded to Prompt #5 with a mention of a recent family vacation, asking, “Tell me more about that” both keeps the conversation going and gives you more information on future vacation options. Just be sure to mix things up every once in a while so that you don’t wind up sounding like a “Tell me more!” robot.
Prompt #7 – “Let me introduce you to…”
Sometimes, the reality of small talk involves conversations that clearly aren’t going anywhere. Maybe you can’t find any common ground, or maybe your new contact’s BO is so overwhelmingly powerful that it cancels out any potential networking benefits. Whatever the case may be, this prompt gives you an opportunity to excuse yourself from a conversation gracefully, while still appearing to provide value for both parties.
To give an effective introduction, don’t just share both parties’ names – give a reason for the introduction as well. Saying, “Jason, meet Benjamin,” and then fleeing reflects much more poorly on you than sharing something like, “Jason, meet Benjamin. He’s a Java developer like you.” Since you’ve provided a commonality, you’ve given Jason and Benjamin something to talk about – giving you the chance to make a graceful exit.
If you still don’t feel confident about your ability to deftly manage small talk, try to remember that nearly everybody gets nervous about maintaining conversations with strangers. Most people will be so thrilled that you’ve taken the lead using your small talk prompts that they’ll be happy to respond to your prompts – boosting your confidence and reinforcing your newly-developed small talking skills.