How to Excel at Small Talk
Small talk can be a surprisingly difficult conversation form to master. Yet, it is important, as you can’t get away with it in your professional or personal life. You can save many situations simply by being able to strike a light-hearted conversation with another person.
But what is small talk all about and could it provide you with some real benefits? This guide will answer those questions and give you tips on how to excel at small talk by focusing on the right tactics and avoiding the common mistakes.
WHAT IS SMALL TALK AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Small talk is a term that can cause quite a bit of unease in some people. It’s also a topic that has created countless blog posts, guides and you can even take courses on it in order to master it.
The Oxford Dictionary definition of small talk states:
“Polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions”
It is a light conversation, typically with strangers and casual acquaintances, that doesn’t require a specific purpose or end goal. If you’ve ever been to a party, then you’ve most likely engaged in small talk.
It could be argued small talk is one of life’s essential survival skills. While it can strike fear in the hearts of many, mastering this skill has plenty of benefits.
The benefits of small talk
If you consider small talk as a mindless activity, which isn’t something you should focus on excelling, you might want to check out the below benefits. This humble skill can surprise you with its amazing, almost life-changing, abilities.
Helps you make a good impression
First of all, a person who knows how to small talk will leave a much better impression than someone who can’t keep a conversation going. Humans are social animals and the ability to socialise with others with ease will make others feel more at ease as well.
Small talk tells people you are smart, approachable and friendly. You can think about the acquaintances you’ve met. Were the ones you found friendly and nice also the ones who could keep the conversation flowing?
Boost your career
Because you can give a better impression of yourself and come across as approachable, the ability to small talk can also boost your career.
A simple small talk at a business seminar or even a party will create an impression of you for the other person and leave a lasting memory of you to their minds. This impression can pop into their head when they are looking for a new business connection or even an employee.
Small talk is essentially an aspect of networking. You never know which connections you make end up being beneficial in the future.
Gives you new ideas
Small talk can even enhance your creativity. Even when you aren’t engaged in a deep conversation, you are still using your brain and dealing with people who might think of things differently.
The ability to keep the conversation flowing will boost your creativity, which in turn can help you discover new ideas and ways of thinking about things. Small talk can even be a great way to get your mind off things during a busy workday!
Improves your ability to solve problems
University of Michigan’s study has even found that people who are good at small talk are also better at problem solving. Because you need to adapt to the other person’s way of talking, your brain gets better at thinking things from a different angle.
Makes you feel better
Since humans are social beings, little social interactions can have a huge impact on our mood. Talking to other people for a moment can in fact make you feel happier. Small talk also has the benefit of being quite light – you don’t need to share deep personal beliefs, but can just enjoy the other person’s company and smile.
TRICKS FOR CRACKING THE ART OF SMALL TALK
While small talk is an essential part of life, it is by no means easy. Even though you aren’t sharing deep, thoughtful ideas, striking a conversation over nothing can actually be a lot harder. The good news is that there are clever ways you can crack the art of small talk.
Just like many things in life, excelling at small talk is all about preparation. If you have a plan and strategy to follow, you are more likely to feel relaxed and give a better impression to the other person.
Do some appropriate preparations, depending on the situation where you are likely to have to make small talk. For example, if you are going to a party, you’d want to think about your connection with the host. This way, you can use it as an icebreaker when meeting new people.
If you are going to an event, where you are likely to meet acquaintances you have met previously, it’s important to try remembering a few things about the person. For example, try to think whether they had any children or their profession, so that you can impress them by asking a casual question on these topics.
You should also think a list of subjects you’d like to talk about and think about these before small talk situations. For example, try answering questions such as:
- What are your hobbies?
- What is your relation to the people at the event?
- Where have you been travelling recently or have you participated in an interesting event?
These can give you plenty of talking points and they can easily direct the discussion further.
Overall, you want to try to stay on top of current events as much as possible. While you’ll see later that certain topics should not be discussed during small talk, you want to know some fun and interesting cultural events that have happened.
If you read newspapers, online blogs and generally pay attention to the world around you, you’ll be more prepared and able to talk about a wide range of subjects.
Train your brain
Get your brain more used to small talk by actively engaging it in the process. If you never go out of your comfort zone, you’ll never be able to improve your ability to do something different.
With a bit of practice, you can ensure your brain goes into automatic gear as soon as you are faced with a small talk situation. By preparing and practicing small talk, you can guarantee the responses and questions come automatically to you.
For example, practice certain conversation starters and questions before hand in front of the mirror. If you are very scared of talking with strangers, try having small talk discussions with your friends and family.
In addition, memory can be a big part of a successful small talk. You can probably think of a time when the person introduced himself to you and just five minutes later, you have no idea who he is.
Studies have highlighted the benefits of different memory games – you can even find a name remembering game app for your phone! When you are in a situation where you hear a new name, as soon as you hear the name, repeat it in your head a few times. Saying the name in your head five times, for instance, can ensure it gets stuck in your head better. If the name is rather difficult, you can always say to the person:
“It was xx, right? Just want to make sure I pronounce it right, a beautiful name –xx – does it have a special origin or a meaning?”
See what just happened? Not only did you say the name aloud twice, you also threw in a beautiful conversation starter!
Finally, if you do forget a name, just confess! It isn’t such a big deal.
Don’t be afraid of the silence
One of the things most people find most frightening about small talk is the occasional silence. Silence might seem like a sign of a dying conversation, but it isn’t necessarily.
First, you shouldn’t try to jump in too quickly to fill a silent space. People take different times to respond and that short silence might just be your conversation partner analysing what to say next. So, always try to count to ten in your head before you start going on.
Sometimes, the other person might just feel like getting out of the conversation, for whatever reason. Don’t force another person to talk with you. If you feel like they want to move on, allow them by either giving them space to say they are going or by suggesting yourself that you should move on.
Try to focus on the signals, you can usually tell, if the other person doesn’t know what to say or if they want to leave. If you feel they aren’t sure what to say, but would like to continue talking, take the initiative.
If a certain topic is drying out and the silences are becoming too common, don’t be afraid to change the topic. There’s nothing wrong with jumping from one topic to another during small talk.
For example, if you’ve been talking about your professions for a while, but there’s not much more to say, you can go “Yes, I enjoy working there a lot, have you been to that part of the town yourself? There are plenty of great restaurants”. This offers you a way to change subjects and the person is provided with two topics to talk about. They can either talk about the area or even the restaurants and favourite foods in more specific.
Above all, the transition doesn’t need to be smooth. The other person is likely just going to feel relieved you were able to come up with a new topic, they won’t mind whether it has nothing to do with what you just talked about!
Reduce your anxiety
If the idea of small talk causes your hands to sweat, there are ways to try to reduce your anxiety. The more comfortable and relaxed you feel, the better the conversation will flow.
First, you shouldn’t have too many expectations about each conversation. While there are benefits to small talk that could see your career lift off, not every conversation is going to create a long-lasting connection. If you just take the conversation as a fun way to lift your spirits, you won’t feel too nervous.
You don’t need to feel like you need to perform or give out a certain impression. Try to be yourself and to enjoy the situation. If something big comes out of it, it’ll just be a bonus. Small talk is not a job interview!
Remember you aren’t the only person in the conversation – it isn’t solely your responsibility to make it work. While you want to take the initiative, you don’t need to feel like it’s your fault if the discussion ends short. Some people will like you and some people won’t – don’t be too hung up on it!
THE SMALL TALK MISTAKES YOU MUST AVOID
Mastering the art of small talk is not only about doing the right things. If you want to excel, you also need to avoid making mistakes. Here are the most important small talk mistakes you should avoid in order to improve your conversation skills.
Talking, but not listening
Small talk is not just about the ability to talk, but also to ability to listen. When it comes to listening, there are two important things to keep in mind.
First, you won’t give a very good impression of yourself, if you are the only person talking. You don’t want the conversation to be all about you. How will you get anything out of the conversation, if you are the only one talking?
When you are having a conversation with someone, make sure to include enough questions and talking points aimed at the other person. If they ask about your last holiday, don’t go into a ten-minute rant. Provide a few details and ask follow-up questions or allow the other person to step in with their own stories as well.
Second related point deals with the way you listen. Listening isn’t just about shutting up. When the other person talks, pay attention to it and when it’s your turn, grab onto a point they made or a thing they said. This shows them you care and creates an impression that you aren’t just wasting the other person’s time. As mentioned above, you can always learn from the other person, so pay attention to what they are saying.
Bringing up the so-called heavy subjects
The definition of small talk says the conversation should be polite and rather light. This means certain topics are out of the question. Small talk is not about finding out the meaning of life or sharing your political opinions in-depth; it is a casual conversation, which could lead to a relationship, where deeper conversations will occur.
There are certain topics you need to avoid bringing up and which you don’t need to engage in, even if the other person brings them up. These are those of politics, race and ethnicity, sexuality and religion.
Small talk is all about creating that uplifting and positive mood. Unfortunately, the topics mentioned above can too easily cause arguments and bad mood, as they are rather divisive and personal.
If the other person makes a remark you find too personal, you can gently steer the conversation away from it. For example, “Oh it’s nice you are involved with the local church, so do you have any other hobbies? I’m personally so into golf these days!”
Furthermore, don’t ask anything too personal, as you never know whether the person is comfortable discussing certain topics. If you unintentionally bring up a tough topic, apologize, say something polite about the person and change the subject.
Furthermore, avoiding personal topics doesn’t of course mean you can’t show some personality. You don’t need to share your life story in full detail, but do open the window to your personality. If you’ve done interesting things, then share them in a positive way.
Failing to make a connection
People often make the mistake of treating small talk as mindless chitchat. While you aren’t going to share your inner thoughts, you still shouldn’t treat the conversation as a means to kill time.
You want to come out of the conversation having gained something. This doesn’t mean it needs to be something life changing, but treat each conversation as an opportunity to learn.
This could just be information and new ideas. Perhaps, the other person will tell you about a great new book to read, a play you should go see or a holiday destination you should definitely visit. You might even simply learn how interesting cooking could be!
On the other hand, you might get along with the other person well and you should jump in on the opportunity to make a connection. You never know if you are talking to your future boss or spouse.
Whatever the conversation is about, don’t fail to use it for making a connection!
Forgetting about your body language
Finally, don’t forget that only 35% of our communication is verbal and the rest is non-verbal. When you engage in small talk it doesn’t just matter what you say, but what you are ‘saying’ with your body language during the conversation.
Your body language involves things such as gestures, facial expression and your posture. By standing or sitting straight, with a smile on your face, you can give out a much better impression and show the other person you are paying attention. If you are fidgeting with your phone and looking elsewhere in the room when the person talks, they’ll feel like you don’t care.
Your body language is especially important during small talk. Since you are talking to a person you don’t know very well, and about topics that are supposed to be positive, you can’t give mixed signals with your body.
Try to relax your body, maintain a calm and positive body posture and look the person you are talking with directly in the eyes. Remember to smile and don’t get too touchy with them.