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How to Improve Your Small Talk Skills

Updated on February 6, 2014

Mastering the Gift of the Gab

Small talk can be terrifying for people who don’t thrive in social situations. Not everyone is naturally gifted with the ability to effortlessly engage people in conversation. Small talk is needed in the workplace and in social situations and is an unavoidable part of life. Fortunately, there are many ways that you can improve your small-talk skills and be able to calmly handle any social situation with a little bit of practice.

Socializing...need not be terrifying

Being able to engage in small talk makes social situations more enjoyable
Being able to engage in small talk makes social situations more enjoyable | Source

Ask People About Themselves

The easiest topic for people to talk about is themselves. Some good questions to ask people to include:

  • "What line of work are you in?"
  • "Whereabouts do you live in the neighborhood?"
  • If they aren't local ask "Where are you from originally?"
  • If at a party ask "How do you know the host?"

These sorts of general questions can open up further topics and then the conversation can flow on from there. Just be mindful not to question too forcefully if the person does not appear to want to reveal too much information about themselves. Similarly, be prepared to talk about yourself. Even if you think you don’t have much to say, there is always something to talk about, remember what the other person might know nothing about you. What you find mundane could be really interesting to them! Work, hobbies, study, holidays, kids, home renovations are all good sources of things that you may wish to talk about.

Location, Location

Where is the small talk taking place? Pay attention to your surroundings and look for things you could comment on. If you are at a wedding there could be many things to discuss such as the bride’s dress, the location, the flowers, the best man’s speech, the music, the food or the champagne. At someone’s house you could discuss the backyard, the deck, the view or the neighbors. Discussing the surroundings is something you both have in common and both of you have an opinion on the setting, or at least you will have an opinion by the end of the conversation.

Keep Up to Date With Current Issues

If you are going to a social event following a golf tournament, it may be wise to do some research beforehand as to what is currently going on in the golf world. That way when golf comes up in conversation you aren’t standing in muted silence because you have no idea what the group is talking about. In the back of your mind, have a couple of topical questions relevant to the particular group that you may want to pose at some point. If you are going to a weekend barbecue, prepare by scanning the week’s news to keep up with what has been happening. When the opportunity arises, you could ask “Did you hear about…..this week? What did you think about that?” Everyone has opinions on news stories so being knowledgeable of current issues is a useful small talk skill.

Use Open Questions to Let Conversation Develop

When trying to make small talk, if you ask questions that have a yes or no answer, or a one word answer such as good, fine ok, sure; the conversation doesn’t have an opportunity to get going, leading to awkward silences. Open questions usually start with how, what, who, when, where, why (although “how are you?” is an example of an open ended question that usually ends with a one word answer!); and give the person an opportunity to provide more detail. When making small talk you don’t have to pose life’s big questions, simple questions like “what did you get up to on the weekend”, or “what good movies have you seen recently” or “How do you make your lunch like that – it always looks so tasty!” are just some examples. The hardest part of any conversation is getting it going, practice at every opportunity and you will find yourself getting better at it. For introverted or shy people, not participating in small talk at work is often mistaken as a sign of rudeness, not that you just don’t have anything in particular to say. It helps to participate in small talk every now and again (especially when the boss is watching) just to show that you are able to do so.

Open Questions Avoid One Word Answers

Asking open questions minimizes the chance of getting a one word answer, allowing conversation to flow
Asking open questions minimizes the chance of getting a one word answer, allowing conversation to flow | Source

Recall Previous Conversations When Making Small Talk

When trying to find something to talk about, remember what has come up in conversation before. Has the person just joined the gym? Were they cooking a new recipe last night? Has their son just started school? Did they have their in-laws staying for the weekend? This helps you to come up with the initial icebreaker and then the conversation will flow quite nicely from there. Listen to the details of what is being said, and find some further information that you’d like to ask about to keep the conversation going. For example “We had a really nice holiday at the beach, the weather was perfect”, could be followed up with “Where did you stay? I’ve been looking for a nice spot to go for a beach weekend”

Small Talk Tactics

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Remember Your Body Language

Most of our communication is non-verbal. Facial expressions, posture, gestures, tone of voice and pitch are all factors that contribute to the message you send people. When engaging in small talk, the easiest way to improve your body language, regardless of anything else you may be doing, is to smile. Everyone reacts better to a smiling face than a neutral or frowning face. Even if you are terrified of the situation, smile. Practice in front of the mirror, and get used to how different your face feels when you smile, then you will automatically know whether you are on smile mode or frown mode!

Remember- smile!


Avoid Negativity

Negativity is a powerful conversation killer! When people are negative it is depressing, and makes other people feel the same way. Small talk is meant to be light-hearted, so avoid being too negative to keep conversations going. Steer clear of the following to avoid having conversations drift into negative territory.

  • Avoid discussing financial difficulty
  • Avoid discussing health problems
  • Avoid discussing traffic jams, or any car trouble experienced on the way to the event
  • Try not to find fault with everything – the event, the weather, what people are wearing, the food. The event may be boring, it may very well be pouring with rain, the food might not be to your liking; but whine about it later to someone else. You’re trying to make a positive impression to engage people in conversation.

People don’t want negativity to rub off on them and will avoid people that put them in a sombre mood. Be mindful of what you are saying and aim for a positive spin on most topics.

Mastering small talk is not something that can occur in a single session, but rather it takes ongoing practice on a daily basis. Spend more time having conversations with people you know well and start practising small talk with acquaintances. Prepare well for social situations where you know you will be making small talk with strangers. The ability to make excellent small talk does not come naturally to everyone, however it is a skill that can be improved with practice.


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    • Inspired Heart profile image

      Yvette Stupart 4 years ago from Jamaica

      It is very important to pay attention to our non-verbal communication in our conversations. We sometimes don't realize that we say so much through our body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and so on. These could serve to invite people to converse with us or turn them off. Thanks for sharing.