You’re sitting in a room full of people you don’t know, nobody is really talking, and the weather has been done to death. You’re feeling tongue-tied, and you’re sure you have a large zit on the end of your nose and every one is looking at it. No one is confident enough to break the ice, and for the life of you, you can’t think of a single intelligent thing to say. IF ONLY YOU KNEW HOW TO MAKE SMALL TALK!
There is no easy ‘how to’ for this situation, but there are lots of tips and strategies that can help you on your way. My own experience has been that as my self esteem has grown, and as I have learnt some of the truths below about myself and others, talking to strangers has become easier and easier as time progresses.
So Let's Start with You
1. Decide now that you LIKE PEOPLE! Most people love to meet new people and make new friends. On the whole, very few people are obnoxious. After all you are not necessarily hunting for a life-long bosom buddy – you just want to enjoy other people’s company. Making new close friends is a bonus.
2. Don’t assume that people don’t want to talk to you. A negative mindset will create a barrier people can sense. They may well be struggling with the same shyness and lack of confidence.
3. Don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t want to talk to you. The reason might have nothing to do with you, and nor should you take on feelings of rejection and failure. Assess how you approached them, and maybe try a different strategy. Watch what other people are doing to engage in conversations. Placing high expectations on yourself will only make you fail. A 100% success rate is not guaranteed simply because we’re human and there is always someone who will not ‘take’ to us.
4. Keep your personal presentation up to scratch. Clean your teeth, use deodorant, wash your clothes, don’t smoke or over indulge in alcohol.
5. Don’t invade a person’s personal space. Keep a comfortable distance between you. People don’t like to be crowded.
6. Be a listener, more than you are a talker.
7. Prepare. Have some opening questions set in your mind. It helps if you know who your audience is going to be. It also helps to have some follow up questions prepared to keep the conversation going.
8. Use people’s names. When you first hear or are told their name, repeat it back to them. This will make it easier for you to remember. Use their name to gain their attention so they know that you are talking to them.
9. Realise that nerves are normal. We all get ‘butterflies’, but preparing as much as we can and learning some skills beforehand, teaches our ‘butterflies’ to fly in formation.
10. Realise that you don’t have to impress anyone. Just be yourself. Know that you are just as important, valued and interesting as the next person.
11. If it’s appropriate take a friend with you for support.
12. Handshakes. Learn how to do these well. Generally, in a social setting, most men will not shake hands with a woman first. So if you’re going to shake hands, learn to do it confidently; lean slightly forward, without invading their space, make your handshake firm and confident but not aggressive, smile and say your greeting. E.g. it’s a pleasure to meet you, or, thank you for inviting me here today, or, I’ve looked forward to our meeting.
13. Accept that some people will just not like you for whatever reason. The reason may in fact have nothing to do with you. They may just be distracted, have something else going on in their head/life for them at that moment, etc. Realise other people are not responsible for your happiness, you are. So if they don’t like you, it doesn’t matter.
14. Dress comfortably and appropriately for the situation.
15. Become an observant person. If there is someone you’d like to meet, or someone who looks interesting to you, watch them for a few minutes. There may be something about them you can use to start a conversation e.g. ‘Hi, I’m Fiona. I’ve been noticing how you seem to bring a smile to people’s faces. That’s a great quality and a great skill to have. How do you do that?’
16. Observe the popular people in the room. Why are they popular? (This can be a positive or negative attribute.) Are they good listeners, comfortable in their skin, do they have a great personality, lots of money, or dress to attract attention? What type of people are they attracting, etc?17. Become a great listener. 'People who know how to love, now how to listen'. We all know people who are great listeners, and we enjoy being with them because through their listening they communicate their care and value for you as a person. Learning to listen more than you speak, will give you favor with people. You will learn a great deal about them, and more opportunities will come your way.
5 Conversation Starters You Can Use
One of the strategies above is to prepare as much as you can if you know you are going somewhere where there will be strangers. Having some conversation starters up your sleeve is a good idea. Interesting topics are those that people like to talk about and have an opinion on; or something we all share in common such as our families, our dreams, our experiences or significant current events. So take a deep breath and have a go. Just use starters that are appropriate to the circumstances, are polite, tactful and show interest in the other person without being personal and nosy.
1. I really enjoy being a part of this organisation. How did you become interested in what they are doing?
2. What is your connection here today? How did you first meet Bob/Sue?
3. When did you first realise you enjoyed biking/mountain climbing? What was your first climb like?
4. I was interested to see in the news today that....how do you feel about what's happening?
5. One I often personally use is 'How do you fill your days up?', just because some people are unemployed, some are retired and it doesn't make the person feel devalued if they are not employed as it can do when you ask 'so what job do you do?.
Hopefully these tips will stop those butterflies from circling a zillion miles an hour in your stomach, and keep your knees looking lady like.
Small talk is an art that we can learn. The big 'up' I got from it was how much it boosted my confidence when I used some of the above tips and they actually worked. Was I scared? Of course! But you gotta feel the fear and do it otherwise nothing will change.
Do you have a favorite conversation starter you use? Let me know in the comments below. You never know it might just be the one that helps someone else.