There’s no arguing with the fact that situations requiring polite small talk can be incredibly uncomfortable. Whether you’re trying to chat up a new business contact at an industry networking event or simply make casual conversation with distant relatives at a family wedding, finding the right words in a nerve-wracking situation can put some people off of socializing informally entirely!
Don’t be that guy! Because the strength of our connections often determines how successful we’ll be in our business and personal lives, it’s important to learn how to make conversation with anyone. The following are a few steps to follow if the thought of making small talk leaves you shaking with fear…
Step #1 – Set Reasonable Expectations
The first thing you need to remember about making appropriate small talk is that nearly everyone feels uncomfortable while doing so. Sure, you’ll encounter the rare chatterbox who’s as comfortable making conversation with strangers as he is tying his shoes in the morning. But for the most part, the people you find yourself conversing with are likely every bit as nervous as you are when it comes to speaking with strangers.
So what does this mean for you? Basically, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need to be the most eloquent conversationalist in the world in order to make small talk successfully. If everyone feels uncomfortable about making polite chit-chat, your conversation partners will likely be so grateful that you’re taking the lead that they won’t even think about judging the topics you’ve chosen!
Step #2 – Identify Environmental Cues
So now that you’ve set your expectations, what should you talk about? Probably the easiest way to find topics of conversation for use in small talk is to rely on environmental cues. For example…
- If you’re at a business networking event, you could ask a new contact, “How’s business going for you?”
- If you’re at a sporting event, ask your conversation partner, “How often do you come to these games?”
- If you’re at an industry conference, consider asking, “What do you think about the latest new [product, company or service] announcement?”
If possible, try to stick to topics that require your new contact to expand beyond a simple “Yes” or “No” answer. Doing so will prevent the conversation from stalling out by giving you the information necessary to expand further on your chosen topic.
Step #3 – Stick with Safe Topics
Of course, in addition to relying on your physical environment to provide clues for your conversations, there are a few topics you’ll want to avoid in all situations. These include:
- Anything related to politics
- Anything related to religion
- Anything related to issues of race
- Anything too personal
The idea here is to keep your conversation on a level that all participants can feel comfortable with. If you don’t know someone’s political preferences or religious background, prying into these areas may result in painful moments. As an example, asking in-depth questions about a person’s family life may force him into discussing sickness, infidelity or other serious issues that have no place in casual banter.
Step #4 – Ask Questions
While learning to become a better conversationalist is an important part of making good small talk, try to keep your chats from becoming entirely one-sided. Small talk should be a two-way street, so if you fail to bring the other person into the conversation, you risk coming across as too self-involved or self-interested.
Unfortunately, new and unfamiliar contacts are often hesitant about jumping into the conversation. To compensate for this, get in the habit of asking questions. No matter what your contact says throughout your conversation, pay attention to the small details your contact shares that could be used as jumping off points for future questions.
As an example, if – continuing with one of our previous examples – your conversation partner states that, “Business is going well, thanks to our most recent marketing campaign,” you could follow up with additional questions on the elements involved in the campaign, the type of clients its attracted or what partners were involved in the creation of the marketing materials.
Step #5 – Smile
One final tip when it comes to making small talk is to simply smile. People want to interact with those who seem happy and confident, and a smile goes a long way towards making a good first impression and helping to form these initial connections.
Of course, it’s important not to get too enthusiastic. If you smile like the Joker or laugh maniacally while attempting to make polite conversation, you’re going to clear the room as quickly as you would with an off-color joke or inappropriate comment. However, by maintaining a pleasant appearance and demeanor, you’ll be better able to make your contacts feel at ease, resulting in successful, engaging small talk.