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Work Smart

How To Master The Fine Art Of Small Talk

Move beyond the weather to make small talk less painful and more productive. Here are five things that great conversationalists know.

[Image: Flickr user Anna Levinzon]

Small talk gets a bad reputation. To avoid this allegedly meaningless drivel, people skip networking events. Or, almost as bad, they attend, but talk to the three people they already know.

This is shortsighted, says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. "Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship," she says, and people like to do business with those with whom they’ve established common ground. "A good networker is looking to foster relationships and build a community never knowing how that contact can help now or in the future. My motto is ‘every conversation is an opportunity for success.’" Here’s how to do small talk better:

1. Lower Your Expectations.

While you can hope for the best, don’t expect too much from any given chat. If you come to cocktail hour hoping for nothing more than a good restaurant or book recommendation, you can relax and enjoy yourself, and be pleasantly surprised by anything else that happens. Relaxed people are, incidentally, more enjoyable for others to be around too.

2. Have something to talk about.

"I never approach a meeting, an industry function, or a networking event without at least three things to talk about," says Fine. "When is the worst time to come up with something to talk about? When you have nothing to talk about!" In particular, she practices a solid answer to "How are you?" or "How are things?" so she doesn’t respond with an "unhelpful one word answer" that forces a conversation partner to do much of the work.

3. Lead with a declaration.

While questions are generally good, leading with one carries risk. You might ask about the one topic the person doesn’t want to cover: "How’s work?" results in "They just announced huge layoffs" or, more likely, an evasive answer and awkward silence. Some people might view asking a direct question at the start of a conversation as rude.

Instead, volunteer something positive about a topic that’s potentially common ground, so the person can choose to reciprocate. "Our host said she just got back from California" lets the person talk about the host, vacations, business she’s done in California, a time she visited California, etc.

4. Then go for questions.

Most people like to talk about themselves, so asking questions is a good way to follow up once you’ve established a safe topic. Avoid close-ended questions ("Did you go on Space Mountain?" could be answered "No") and instead ask about favorite memories. That lets people tell their best stories.

If you’re in a conversation with someone who’s particularly hard to engage, try the old interview trick of giving people two options: "Did you rent a car in Amsterdam or take the train?" If one option is correct, people will elaborate on it ("We rented a car, but we had to special order a minivan. Hertz didn’t just have one at the airport...") or if neither is, people are quick to correct a faulty impression ("Actually, we traveled the whole country by bicycle"). The correction then offers multiple follow-on possibilities.

5. Prepare for a lull.

You can extricate yourself ("I need to go say hello to my old client") or you can introduce your conversation partner to someone ("Would you like to meet her?") but there may be nowhere else to go. So good conversationalists also know how to shift. If she’s been talking about work, Fine likes to ask "What keeps you busy outside of work?"

If you’ve established general biographical info, she recommends letting the person show you her best self with "What has the highlight of your year been so far?" Who knows, it might be a highlight you’re interested too, and the person goes from small talk partner to honest-to-goodness friend.