Create Small Talk Like A Pro
“I don’t know what to say when I enter a room full of strangers!” I hear this quite often from people, including some you would never suspect had any type of social anxiety. Knowing how to engage in small talk is an essential tool we need to increase our soft skills. But before we learn a few tips, we need to change our psychology.
1. Realize others in the room feel the same way you do. Instead of making yourself the focal point of your internal feelings, turn those feelings around and say, “Today, I am going to rescue someone at this party.” Look at each guest and tell yourself you are the only person who can save them from feeling awkward and alone. Find a person (or single couple) standing by themselves and introduce yourself. Usually, you will see a sigh of relief in their body language that screams, “I am so glad someone came over to talk to me!”
2. I have heard others say “keep things light” when speaking with someone for the first time. I do not always agree. When I converse with a person that is “small talking” me with shallow stories and information, my immediate reaction when they depart is, “That was a waste of time.” Studies show people prefer deeper conversations that are rewarding. I am not suggesting you dive into your solution for the world’s nuclear crisis. I am suggesting you put on your counseling hat and say, “Tonight, I am going to help one of these guests by providing a much-needed referral for a job.” Or, “Tonight, I am going to help one person make a connection within my sphere of influence that they might not have access to.”
3. People love to talk about themselves, so ask questions. By being the instigator in the conversation, this also takes the spotlight off you. Open ended questions work best because the other person cannot give you one-word answers. Instead of asking, “Did you enjoy the movie you saw last night?” Say, “What did you enjoy most about the movie you saw?” The first inquiry will give you a one-word answer. The second requires the response to become a discussion. My favorite conversation starter with someone I do not know is, “Tell me a little about yourself.” This has endless possibilities and allows the person you are speaking with to take the conversation in any direction they wish.
4. Find common ground to start your discussion. If you are both at the same social gathering, then the most obvious point of connection is the hostess. Your first question might be, “How do you know Suzy?” The answer to this simple question will provide you with enough follow up questions to successfully small talk your way to the next person. A normal progression for this type of conversation might look like this:
Person A: “How do you know Suzy?”
Person B: “We went to college together.”
Person A: “Oh, where did you attend school?”
Person B: “State University down the road.”
Person A: “I had several friends that attended school there. There was a favorite restaurant everyone went to called Spanky’s. My best friend, Kristi, worked there.
Person B: “I know Kristi! We became good friends because I always went to Spanky’s!”
5. People love to feel like an expert, so seek the expertise of the person you are engaging. Out of professional courtesy, I am not suggesting you ask the doctor to diagnose the pain in your leg. Rather, if you learn their children go to a nearby elementary school, you might say, “My husband and I have been considering that school for our children. Have you been pleased with your choice?” Or: “If we decide to send our children there, we will have to move into the area. What do you find are the pros and cons of the neighborhood?”
6. Use your body language to show you are interested. We have all been in conversations where the person is speaking TO us but not fully engaged WITH us. They continue to glance around the room or take quick peaks at their phone. This inevitably makes the recipient feel undervalued, as though they are a place holder until someone better comes along. When you speak with someone, make eye contact, and do not allow yourself to be distracted. Learning to listen effectively is a skill that needs to be mastered.
Here are some tried and true small talk questions that will give you confidence in any situation:
What brought you to your current company?
If you know they have children, ask how old they are, where they are in school, etc.
Are you originally from (name the hometown where the party is being held)?
When you are not working, how do you like to spend your time?
What is the most enjoyable theatre performance you have attended?
Are there any books you have read recently you would recommend?
What is the best vacation you have taken? Why?
If you could only take one more vacation, where would you go?
Did you participate in any extracurricular activities in college?
And my favorite, “Tell me a little about yourself.”
Together with you,