Mastering Conversation: The Art of Small Talk

What is small talk?

Small talk is defined as the use of casual conversation about relatable topics with the goal of getting a sense for another person and beginning to establish rapport. Small talk will vary across different contexts. Small talk is often used around people that you do not know very well. In many ways, small talk is a defense mechanism to cope with the universal anxiety people experience when conversing with those they do not know well. Alternatively, small talk can also become more than just a defense mechanism, it can become a highly useful skill in the professional world. Small talk can help in meeting other people, building working rapport, and developing wide networks.

What makes up small talk

The foundation to small talk involves developing courage to approach people you do not know well and some that are complete strangers. This requires courage because human beings experience a universal fear of social judgement and the desire to be liked and accepted. So small talk can be a window to developing personal or working relationships. However, opening that window requires vulnerability by opening yourself up to another person and unknown situations.

Initiating small talk begins with a simple hello and introduction. However, an important first step is to assess the benefits of approaching a certain person. What are your goals for meeting this person and establishing some rapport? Do you know anything about this person that might be useful in relating to him or her? These questions can help you have some focus when you begin your small talk. The most vital communication skills to small talk involve active listening and empathy. Active listening and empathy are key to small talk because they are fundamental in building the beginning feelings of trust and will increase your likeability factor. Key to small talk is to find points to relate to the other person. These points of relating will be discovered through prior assessment of the person you wish to approach or if this is not possible, using active listening and questioning to get to know certain facts about that person. Using that information to then relate to the person is vital to small talk.

The Elevator Speech

Small talk will involve a fine balance between gaining information from the other person and also providing the person with information about yourself. Context is important to know how much talking should be done on your part. If you are in a professional setting, having an elevator speech prepared can be helpful in guiding your small talk. An elevator speech is a 30 second blurb in which you tell someone else what it is you do. Since in many situations, the start of any small talk will begin with "Hi, how are you?" followed by, "What do you do?" Have a brief, yet thorough, synopsis of what it is you do. This synopsis is often called an elevator speech because if you are in an elevator with someone you may not know very well, it is a prime scenario for small talk. The goal is to not get to deeply know the other person, but to simply provide enough information about yourself that you leave the person wanting to know more about you.


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Charisma is defined as a personality trait described as being charming and relatable. For individuals who tend to be more shy, they may not feel they could ever be charismatic. However, the underlying key to charisma is to make the other person feel like you genuinely cared about that encounter or that you found them to be important. Authenticity is vital to this piece of small talk. A person who seems genuinely interested in connecting with you will keep you wanting to know more about that person. So how can you create a genuine self during small talk. One way to improve your genuine presentation of self is to gain confidence in your skills. This can be done by rehearsing your elevator speech to yourself and gaining confidence in what you know and what you do. Authentic confidence will attract others to you and leave the person you are having the small talk with wanting to know more about you.

Finding Common Ground

Small talk is often confined to a short amount of time, therefore it is unrealistic to get to know someone on a deep level or get into philosophical or controversial discussions. A helpful goal for approaching small talk is to find common ground. This common ground may be known ahead of time as you prepare to be meeting someone for the first time, or it may need to be discovered as you initiate small talk with another person. Finding common ground will involve using active listening. It is important to listen for what seems important to the other person; are they repeating certain words, talking about a very specific topic, or person? Is anything standing out that seems to genuinely relate to your own work or interests? In a professional setting, small talk with a college or potential networking connection does not have to center upon work related topics. In many occasions the most memorable people are those we relate to on a personal level. Are you hearing this person talk about a passion of theirs? Can you relate to this passion? Are there hobbies this person does that you can also share your own experiences with? These questions can be helpful to consider as you practice small talk with others and use the goal of finding common ground. As you find common ground, you will be exposing parts of yourself; not enough to get too involved in a deep conversation, but something that shows who you are and discloses something important to you.

Handling Awkward Moments

Silences can be uncomfortable for most human beings, especially when you are talking with someone you do not know very well. However, silence does not mean that the other person is judging or bothered. If you sense the person does want to leave the conversation, allow them to do so, otherwise silence may mean the person is thinking about what was just said. Working on silence within each encounter of small talk can help diminish feeling awkward. If you feel at a loss for what to talk about, a good fall back strategy could be to discuss a common ground as to the context you are in. For example, discuss something in the room such as some decor, or talk about the neighborhood and observations you have made. Even if you cannot find any common ground in your own lives, you will always have in common the immediate context you are in. Many times discussing the surroundings may even stimulate a commonality that you each have in your outside lives.

Remembering Names

It may seem trivial, but remembering someone's name even throughout the small talk can make or break whether you leave an impression with that person. Using the person's name periodically as you talk to them can not only help you encode the name, but research has shown when a person hears his or her name, they feel more at ease. This can allow them to feel more connected to you and enhance your likability factor. It is always a useful tactic to also ask for the person's contact information, whether it be a business card or writing down the person's information. In the professional world, it is also vital to alway follow up with the person you had small talk with. One to two weeks is a good timeframe to send a follow up email in which you thank them for spending some time talking, and use that space to say what you would like to move forward with in the future. Ask for a more formal meeting or ask if you can keep his or her contact for future networking. If the person you had small talk with does not fully fit into the niche of networking you are looking for, saving his or her contact information to ask if they have any colleagues that they could connect you with is a further avenue simple small talk can open up for you.

Ending the Small Talk

If you feel as though the conversation has moved to a point where there is little left to relate to, it may be that the small talk has reached its end. If you want to end the conversation or need to due to time, the first rule is that it is okay to redirect yourself. A helpful strategy is to share something that you enjoyed hearing from that person, while also using his or her name. For example, "I really found your story on X to be really motivating, John." Following a statement such as this with a thank you can signal to the other person you are ready to move on. Alternatively, if you hear a person use a summary statement, or thank you for something, it may be a cue to you that they are ready to move on. If this is the case, return the thank you and sentiment of appreciation for the other person's time, and allow him or her to be on his or her way. If you feel you did not get to connect with this person through your use of small talk strategies, be sure to get his or her contact information before parting ways. Often times, small talk is done with the goal of establishing a future plan to meet and develop a deeper connection, whether personal or professional. So try not to let the other person leave without getting some contact information. This way, even if you leave the conversation feeling you did not get to leave as much of an impression, you are able to follow up. The rule to following up with someone in a professional arena is to wait one week before you call or email with a follow up. Your follow up should be brief, but sincere. Start by thanking the person for their time and mention one thing you enjoyed talking about. This can then lead you into expressing a desire to meet again to talk more in depth. This is a great tip for someone trying to build a professional network right out of college or trying to advance within your company or industry. Personally, following up can help to demonstrate interest and a desire to get to know the person more.

Why is Small Talk an Art?

Small talk contributes to greater conversations because the large majority of your conversations when you are in a public arena will be small talk, and those conversations that are more involved will start with small talk. So practicing these small talk strategies can help to greatly enhance your ability to leave a great first impression, and also build your own confidence in approaching strangers who may be able to advance your career or become an important personal relationship.

For all these reasons, small talk is truly an art form. It involves the use of these skills in a more spontaneous sense, and requires your ability to read the other person's own goals and motives in talking with you. Therefore, it is difficult to rehearse small talk, rather you will be practicing the combination of these skills in vivo. In other words, the more you do it in real life, the better you will be. A great deal of how you approach a small talk scenario has to do with how you perceive yourself. If you identify as an "awkward person," most likely you will present as an awkward person. This comes from the desire to be accepted by the person you are talking to. Especially in a small talk scenario, you most likely do not know the person very well. As a result, the goal of relating to the other person, as discussed above, is a great foundation for reducing the anxiety you might feel in small talk. Some people feel so awkward during small talk because it feels forced or superficial. If this is the case, your goal should to present the real you. The real you will be the person that best connects with this other person, even through small talk. If the ultimate goal is to leave and impression for potential future networking and advancement, then it is the real you that will be needed in the future as well. Therefore, it is important that you remain genuine to who you are and what you know.