Mastering the Art of Small Talk
From: Talking With Confidence for the Painfully Shy, by Don Gabor 


"Talk to anyone about himself and he will listen without interrupting."

--Herber Prochnow

You will learn to:

• Create rapport through small talk.

• Spontaneously start conversations.

• Maintain stimulating conversations.

• Change topics gracefully.

• End conversations tactfully.

• Converse with confidence.

Franklin Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States believed that most people were poor listeners, especially when it came to making small talk. Every so often, to prove his point and amuse himself, he would greet houseguests with, "I murdered my grand-mother this morning." The usual response was a puzzled yet polite nod of approval. However, one evening a guest greatly impressed him when she smiled and said, "I'm sure she had it coming."

Small Talk Creates a Friendly Atmosphere

Small talk is light and casual conversation that avoids obscure subjects, arguments, or emotionally charged issues. If you are like many shy people, you might think small talk is a waste of time, but nothing could be further from the truth! Making small talk is an easy way to get to know someone, create a positive first impression, and gain self-confidence.

Discussing general-interest subjects such as movies, music, theater, sports, books, food, travel, and such demonstrates to others that you are approachable and friendly. When you offer a few lighthearted comments or ask and answer questions, you send the message that you are ready, willing, and able to communicate. This is especially critical for other shy people who look for a "green light" or extra encouragement before they even consider participating in a conversation. When you make casual conversation, other shy people will conclude that you are a person with whom they can easily converse.

Small Talk Allows for an Informal Exchange of Basic Information

One highly useful aspect of small talk is that it enables two people to learn a great deal about each other in a short amount of time. Small talk provides an opportunity for you to casually find out where people are from, what they do for pleasure and profit-even what they love to eat or what their lifelong dreams are. In addition, if you listen carefully, you will discover that most people readily reveal the topics they want to discuss or subjects in which they are interested.

When you hear an interesting remark, acknowledge it with a comment and an easy-to-answer follow-up question. For example, if an acquaintance mentions a recent vacation, you might respond, "I know exactly what you mean about traveling because it's one of my hobbies, too! What made you decide to visit...?" Small talk is a confidence-booster because it enables you and your conversational partner to quickly find areas of common interest and helps you choose topics that both of you feel comfortable discussing.

Ten Steps to Mastering Small Talk

Have you ever wondered how some people can enter a roomful of strangers and strike up a conversation with practically anyone? Even if you are shy, the secret to pulling off this communication coup is easy if you follow these ten steps.

Step 1: Before the Event, Identify Several Interests and Experiences That You Are Willing to Discuss

"Be prepared. '---Boy Scout motto

Can you imagine a marathon runner not warming up before a big race or an attorney improvising to the jury the key points of an important case? In each situation, preparation is the key to success. The same is true for mastering small talk. For the shy person, the first critical step in mastering small talk is preparing what YOU want to talk about. By identifying at least six or more "hot" topics and stimulating experiences, you can prime your conversational pump and get ready to communicate. To list possible topics, ask yourself questions such as:

"What have I read lately that I enjoyed or found though-provoking?"

"What movie, play, or performance tickled my funny bone or captured my imagination?"

"What restaurants could I recommend to someone who shares my tastes in food?"

"What recordings or concerts have I heard that may interest other music lovers?"

"Where have I traveled that exceeded my expectations?"

"What new challenges am I setting for myself?"

"What are my current hobbies?"

"What plans do I have for this weekend or over the next holiday? "

"What insights can I share about my business or work that might be interesting?"


You may be reluctant to talk to strangers or previous acquaintances, but once you make this exercise part of your mental preparation for socializing, you will never be at a loss for words when the opportunity to converse arises. In addition, you'll discover many other people who share your interests and are willing to talk about what they enjoy.

H I N T: When you first meet a person, avoid these unpleasant, overly personal, or highly controversial issues because they can quickly degenerate into depressing conversations or arguments:


• Personal, health, money, or family problems.

• Divorce or death.

• Gory crimes and decaying moral values of Western civilization.

• Layoffs and gloomy economic predictions.

• Terrorism, war, pestilence, and famine.

• Emotionally charged issues such as abortion, welfare, or capital punishment.

• Sex, politics, and religion.


Step 2: Search for Individuals Who Seem Receptive

From the moment you enter a room, search for people who are already talking or appear as though they want to talk. These folks are usually the easiest ones to approach because they require little prodding to engage in conversation.

Step 3: Establish Eye Contact and Smile to Send Receptive Signals

Casual eye contact and a warm, friendly smile demonstrate your interest and desire to communicate. Eye contact for five to ten seconds indicates curiosity and is generally considered friendly. Take care not to stare at another person too intensely because this can make him or her feel uncomfortable. Vv7hen the other person returns the eye contact, smile back. At that point you have made a connection and transmitted the message that you want to have a conversation.

This first contact is usually the precise moment when most shy people become nervous, fold their arms, and avert their gaze. Avoid "mixed signals" in which you make eye contact and then look away for several minutes. The other person often interprets this as a loss of interest. He or she may think that you looked and did not like what you saw.

H I N T: To neutralize your nervousness and communicate receptivity, unfold your arms, move your hands completely away from your face (including your mouth and chin), and smile. By keeping your body language open and relaxed, you'll send out confident and friendly signals that say you are available for contact.

Step 4: Be the First to Introduce Your8eff and Ask an Easy, Open-Ended Question

Do you hang back and wait for others to start a conversation with you? The problem with this passive strategy is that the longer you wait, the more nervous and uncomfortable you will become. Instead, move into an action mode. Take the initiative and be the first to say hello. This not only demonstrates confidence and shows interest in the other person, but it gives you the opportunity to guide the conversation. Most people in social situations are perfectly delighted to chat if someone approaches them in an easygoing way. Begin your conversation by introducing yourself. Then follow with an easy-to answer question about something in your immediate surroundings. In most cases, "open-ended" questions are best because they elicit detailed responses. The following are examples of open-ended questions that will encourage the other person to talk:

"How do you know our host?"

"What do you think of this spectacular view?"

"Could you explain to me how this ... works?"

"What is your opinion of...?"

"Why do you think ... happened?"

You can also launch a conversation by offering a sincere compliment with a follow-up question or by making a lighthearted comment. As a rule, the earlier you introduce yourself in a conversation, the better. When you come to a pause in your conversation, smile, make eye contact, shake hands, and say, "By the way, my name is..."

H I N T: Be aware of cultural differences in what is considered comfortable communicating distance. For most people and cultures, a span of about three feet between new acquaintances is about right.

Step 5: Listen Carefully for the Other Person's Name and Use It in the Conversation

"I don't remember anybody's name. "Why do you think the 'dahling' thing started?"-Eva Gabor

Even the most gregarious people often forget the names of the people they meet. The reason is that they are either thinking of what they are going to say next or are focused on making a good impression. For a shy person like you, mastering the ability to remember names quickly boosts your conversational power and really impresses the people you meet.

While I'm no memory expert, my ability to remember first names is good. Here is what I do to remember the first name of someone I've just met.

• At the moment of introduction I focus only on his or her name and face.

• I immediately repeat the person's name to make sure that I got it right.

• If I missed the name, I ask the person to repeat it.

• I quickly think of someone I know with the same name.

• I say the name periodically in the conversation.

• I always use the person's name when I close the conversation.


Step 6: Listen Carefully for Facts, Feelings, Key Words,

Free Information, and Implied Statements

Another powerful tool to help you make small talk with strangers is active listening. Tune into facts, feelings, key words, free information, and implied statements that suggest topics of interest or common experiences. Listen for phrases or words that create a mental picture. For example, "…going on a dream vacation,""…excited about a new job,""... rescued an abandoned dog,"" I can't wait to…" When you hear a word or phrase that triggers a picture, simply ask something like "You mentioned that you spent time in Chicago! That's were you doing there?" or say "Chicago! That's where I grew up. How did you like working there?"

Listening Between the Lines Tells You "What NOT to Say

When listening "between the lines" you may hear implied statements that suggest emotionally charged topics to avoid. Since many people often reveal their feelings unconsciously and indirectly, listening is your primary tool for knowing what and what not to say. If a person implies or states a negative feeling about a particular topic, avoiding that topic is probably wise. For example, in a social situation if I heard someone I had just met say any of the following comments, I would quickly change the subject to something more positive:

"After the jerks I worked for fired everyone in our department . . . "

"I couldn't wait to get out of that lousy marriage, so I ... "

"You want to know what I really hate?"

"Don't get me started!"

Step 7: Disclose Some of Your Background, Interests, and Experiences

If you only ask questions and never share anything about yourself, your contact with others will be more like interrogations than conversations. Therefore, it is essential to tell people about yourself. However, don't overwhelm people with your life story or list your accomplishments as if you were interviewing for a job. Casually pepper your conversation with a bit of your background and experience and you will reveal who you are in a positive and interesting way. For example:

"When I was growing up in . . . "

"In my spare time I enjoy . . . "

"One of my favorite things to do is . . . "

"I spent about ten years working for a big company before starting my own business. "

"I've been working as a ... for many years.

H I N T: Let the other person know of any interests or experiences that you think you may have in common.

Step 8: Explore the Other Person's Interests by Encouraging Him or Her to Talk

Revealing information about your hobbies, job, or family makes it easy for others to know what you want to talk about. However, you do not want to prattle endlessly about yourself. Keep small talk stimulating by changing topics at the right time. This is effortless if you have made a point to listen for facts, key words, free information, feelings, and implied statements. Simply say, "I heard you mention earlier . . ." or "It's funny that you brought up that subject. I'm interested in that, too. " Or you can merely change the subject by inquiring, "Do you mind if I ask you about something you mentioned a few minutes ago?"

H I N T: While discussing a variety of issues and subjects is desirable, bouncing around too much from topic to topic is annoying. If you do leave a topic before you or the other person is finished, just pick up where the two of you left off by saying, "Getting back to what you were saying before..."

Step 9: Highlight Mutual Interests

It may sound obvious, but one way to overcome shyness is to spend more time talking with people you like. Unfortunately, many shy people fail to cement the bonds with the likable people they meet in social situations. That is why emphasizing areas of commonality and mutual interests is important. For example, you can say:

"It's always good to meet someone who is interested in YY

"I'm happy I've finally met another alumnus of. "

"I love it when I meet someone who is as excited about ... as I am. "

"It's rare that I meet a person who enjoys . . . as much as I do. "

Step 10: Restate Something You Found Interesting in the Conversation and End with an Invitation to Meet Again

Everyone agrees that the first few minutes of contact are important, but many fail to understand that the last moments of a conversation are equally crucial. Follow this format for ending conversations and you'll leave a positive impression on the people you meet.

First, say a few words about an interesting topic that the other person discussed. Then add that you've enjoyed the chat. Look at the person, smile, shake hands, and use his or her name. Finally, if you are so inclined, suggest that the two of you talk again soon. Offer your business card or telephone number. Then ask the other person how you might reach him or her. The following example shows how to end a conversation the right way and leave a positive impression:

"Pat, it was really fun talking about the mystery you are reading. By the way, I belong to a mystery book club where a small group of us sit around and talk about what we've been reading. If you are interested in meeting some other mystery buffs, I'll let you know the time and place of our next get-together [Look for a nod, smile, and agreement to this invitation.] How can I get in touch with you? Great! Well, talk to you later Bye. "

H I N T: Keep your farewells short. Even if the other person does not accept your invitation, that's okay-it's still worth suggesting a future meeting, for you may not get the opportunity again.

Do's and Don'ts For Making Small Talk