The art of making small talk

Do you feel uncomfortable making conversation in either social or business situations? Do you worry about embarrassing yourself, wonder what to say, feel out of place, stumble over words, feel physically uncomfortable? Do you watch other people talk socially and wonder how they make it look so easy?

We've done a little digging here at AccountingWEB and have come up with some sure-fire conversation starters and tips for keeping the conversation going. Make a conscious effort to use some of these tips the next time you find yourself in need of something to say, and maybe you'll be the enviable person surrounded by people who want to talk to you!

The Art Of Making Small Talk

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Bernardo Carducci, PhD, author of The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk, suggests that in a large group, look for someone who is standing alone. Start a conversation by referring to something in the room. For example, "This cheese dip is delicious!" or "That's an interesting painting." Introduce yourself and say something about yourself. For example, "Hi, I'm Gail. This is the first time I've been to one of these events, but I'm really looking forward to hearing some of the speakers." Then it's easy to follow up with a question such as, "Have you attended these seminars before?" or "Have you heard so-and-so speak before?"

Offer a compliment to the person you're speaking to. If you're in a one-on-one conversation, you can comment on something you notice about the person or the person's possessions, followed by a question. For example, "That's a beautiful necklace – is it an heirloom?" or, "You have a lovely home – have you lived here long?"

If you're in a group, ask a question that anyone can answer, such as, "Can any of you tell me about some good restaurants in the area?" or, "I just finished reading the last Harry Potter book - have any of you read it?"

Try to avoid questions that can be answered with Yes or No, and instead ask open-ended questions that might lead to discussion. For example, "What made you decide to go into this profession?" or, "How did you get your job at XYZ firm?" not only makes a person answer with more than one or two words, but gets the person talking about him- or herself. People love to talk about themselves.

Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, has some more ideas on the subject. She recommends planning your small talk strategy in advance, when you're relaxed and not nervous, by thinking of three or four things to talk about before you ever get to your destination. Use the information you know about the event, the people who will be attending, or the location, to come up with some topics.

If people have traveled to attend the event, you can ask about their trip, where they come from, how they like it here, and so on.

Say "Hello," shake hands, smile, and offer your name when initiating conversation. Try very hard to remember the name of the person you're speaking with, and use that name in conversation.

There are memory tricks that can help you remember names. First, think of someone else you know by the same name and remind yourself to think of that person when you're looking at this new person. Just drawing that comparison and silently telling yourself that this person with the blonde hair is named Jim, just like your brother Jim who has blonde hair, will go a long way toward helping you remember the name. Or try using a letter or rhyme recognition to help yourself remember. For example, when you meet a person named Anna, try to remember to think of bananas or bandanas when you look at her. Or when you meet Joey and he has a great smile, let his smile remind you of the word Joke when you look at him. Joke starts with J, and so does Joey. These tricks can help you keep several names in mind.

Be sure to listen intently to the person with whom you are conversing. Don't let your eyes wander around the room (unless you're trying to escape from the conversation), and use comments that the person makes to expand the topic with your next question or statement. For example, if the person says she took a train to get to the event, you can ask about the train ride, if she travels by train often, if she prefers train to other modes of transportation, and why or why not. Or mention a quick story about a train ride you had once, then ask the person to share her favorite, least favorite, unusual, or funny train experiences. There needs to be a balance here. Don't be overly intrusive with your questions. If you sense the person is withholding information, trying to change the subject, or looking for an escape, you've gone too far. Back up. Head for safer ground with some comments about easy subjects like the weather or traffic.

Be aware of current events so that you'll be able to engage in conversation about what's going on in the news. A great way to begin a conversation is with reference to something current, either in the news or in your profession, or both. "Have you read any of the reports about the reversal of urban sprawl? Just the other day, I read that people are moving back to the cities in record numbers. What's that going to do to our business and how will we adapt?" Or, "Did you see that story on the news last night about the dog who called 911 for his owner? I'd be lucky if my dog didn't chew up the phone! How about you – what types of pets have you owned?"

Avoid controversial topics when starting a conversation. Topics such as political issues can result in heated arguments. Instead, Image Consultant Jill Bremer of Bremer Communications suggests these safe topics for conversation starters: sports, books, theater, movies, food, museums, and travel. Before you arrive at the social setting, think of some open-ended questions to ask and brief stories to share about some of these topics.

Practice comfortable body movements and gestures so you won't look awkward when you're with strangers. The best way to practice is to pay attention to your movements when you are in a comfortable setting - with your family, for example - and then try to remember how it feels to be that comfortable when you are in a new setting.

If you're entering a group where a conversation is already in progress, Fine recommends being attentive and listening for awhile before jumping in with your own comments. Get a feel for where the conversation is going and what has already been said before speaking.

Bremer also recommends making eye contact while conversing. "Looking at people and meeting their eyes are the first steps toward striking up friendships and making positive impressions. The best advice is to make short frequent glances in social situations. Making eye contact for too long a duration can be seen as threatening."

Roxanne Roberts, social editor for the Washington Post, says that her favorite tip when making small talk is to listen. "People, even the really shy ones, like to talk about themselves and will do so if you know how to draw them out," she says. "You have to be genuinely interested. You have to check your ego. If this is done right, they walk away thinking you're great."

No matter how much you know about a subject, keep in mind that your goal is to have a comfortable conversation with a stranger, and to do so, you're going to have to let the stranger do a lot of the talking. Roberts recommends that you resist the temptation to turn the spotlight back on yourself: "You're going to Italy? We stayed at this great little place outside of Florence . . ." will surely turn off the person who wanted to tell you about his impending trip to Italy.

Susan RoAne, author of How to Work a Room: What Do I Say Next? has some additional advice about what not to do when making small talk. Don't brag. Don't try to one-up the other person with your own bigger, better, funnier, more expensive, smarter, stronger… (you get the picture). Don't interrupt. Don’t correct. And don't complain.

And what happens if you get someone talking and then decide you want to exit the conversation? Carducci suggests giving notice that you're about to leave. For example, "I've got to talk to X the next time he walks by, but it's been great talking with you." What should you do if X never walks by? Carducci recommends using the standard trip-to-the-restroom escape.

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