At the beginning of almost everything – from friendships, to relationships and careers – there is small talk. Knowing how to start, maintain and smoothly wrap up a casual conversation is an essential skill, particularly in the US and the UK – and thankfully a skill that can be learned. We’ll walk you through the steps that will make you an excellent conversationalist and awesomely comfortable at that dreaded and sometimes derided skill: small talk. Brownie points included.
1. Find your target
Sometimes you sit next to them, sometimes you have to wander around the room to find them: the people with the good stories and the gift of the gab.
2. Study their body language
Talk to someone who looks approachable. People who nap, read or are on the phone are no-gos. Check their body language and make eye contact. Once you have acquired your target, get ready to say hi. Ignore all the sweat, adrenaline and tendency to overthink.
3. Say something. Anything.
Take a deep breath and say something. Or even better, ask something in the form of an open question. You’re obviously in the same place at the same time, so you must have something in common. Voila! That’s the perfect start to your conversation.
4. Something like this, you mean?
Work, studies or hobbies are classic and foolproof topics. So are the weather, current news (minus politics and religion), the scenery, music, food or compliments about outfits. Make sure you don’t interrogate but keep the balance between asking and revealing. Questions like “What keeps you busy these days?” or “How did you become a (insert job title)?” work like a charm.
5. Now add the magic sentence
Here’s a little secret that I stole from writer Paul Ford: As soon the person says what they do for a living, you say: “Wow. That sounds really hard.” Bam! You reached the goal of every conversation: The other person feels super special. (Here, have some brownie points.)
6. Do a lot of all this
Remember to be polite and listen more than you talk. Make eye contact, nod, smile, give (honest) compliments, and laugh at jokes – even the not so funny ones. Try to remember names and what you just talked about, and finish off nicely: “Oliver, it was nice meeting you. I’ll definitely check out that website you recommended. Oh and good luck with your marathon.” (More brownie points, anyone?)
7. So, uhm… the weather, huh?
There’s probably going to be silence, some of it might even be awkward. Just pick a new topic and keep talking. Nobody expects casual conversations to have perfect transitions. If you’re out of topics, don’t be afraid to move on.
8. Be brief. Be bright. Be gone.
Preferably, you leave before the conversation hits a slump: Excuse yourself and go to the bathroom (a classic!), introduce the person to someone else or you say that you want to go meet XY before you leave. If you’re somewhere where you can’t do any of that, you might have to catch another bus or go back to your book. Whatever you do, be as polite and as charming as possible. If it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable chat, don’t forget to exchange contact details!