At one point in my life, I was an introvert.
If you know me at all now, you’d laugh at this suggestion. I qualify as an extrovert on pretty much every personality test you can take — and I blame it on all the espresso. But once upon a time — before I discovered coffee — I was very, very shy.
I’ve honed my people skills over the years, survived public speaking, learned to effectively network in a room full of strangers, am usually the friend who makes the plans, and have definitely learned to speak up and voice my opinion. But I’m still probably happiest at home with a good book, a glass of wine, and a cat. (Perhaps I’m really an ambivert . . .)
Regardless of whatever label you want to slap on my personality, the reality is that the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve had to lean into my extroverted side.
If you’re like most people, you probably dread the whole small-talk-with-strangers thing. Even if you’re an extrovert who enjoys meeting new people, small talk can be exhausting when you have to do it a lot.
I speak from experience, as I’ve spent the majority of my career in fundraising and communications. They’re both fields in which good conversation skills are essential. Fundraisers have to be just as good one-on-one with individual supporters as we are navigating a crowded cocktail party. We also have to be comfortable working with a wide variety of people, articulate enough to explain our cause clearly and passionately, and most importantly — be able to easily establish genuine connections with the people we meet. Communications specialists **obviously** have to be great communicators, employing verbal, written, and even visual and creative skills to get our messages across.
Consequently, I’ve gotten really good at carrying a conversation when called upon. Here are a few of my best tips . . .
1| Everybody Likes To Talk About Themselves
The absolute best bit of advice I can give you is this . . .
Wanna know what everyone’s favorite subject is? Themselves.
Few people get the opportunity to talk about themselves, but practically everyone enjoys it. I promise you, no matter the situation, if you start asking someone questions about their life, their career, their travels, their family, their hobbies, etc., you’ll be fine.
The subject most people know best is their own life. Even the most shy person will light up given the chance to talk about a book they love or a really good meal they just had. Show genuine interest, ask a few solid questions, and soon they’ll be doing all the talking!
2 | Find Common Ground
I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot. Between my wanderlust and my very people-focused career path, I’ve met quite the cross-section of individuals over the years.
Guess what? We all have a helluva lot in common. Way more than we think we do! Once you get your new friend talking, try and establish some similar territory. Maybe you both love baseball. Perhaps your nine-year-old also leaves their Legos everywhere, so that you can find them with your bare feet. Maybe you’re both really into the latest viral Netflix series.
Whatever it is, try to build a small shared connection. It will help keep the conversation flowing.
3 | Humor Is Your Friend
This one’s tricky, because sometimes people try too hard to be funny, and it comes across as awkward, forced, or even inappropriate.
But if you can, try to lighten the mood by telling a funny story that’s relevant to the conversation, or even better — by poking a bit of fun at yourself. If you’re able to demonstrate that you don’t take yourself too seriously, it will put everyone at ease.
4 | Names, Eye Contact, and Attention Spans Matter
I can’t believe I even have to say this, but here it is . . . please, please, please, don’t do that terrible thing where you look at your phone a million times in a five minute window. And just as importantly, please don’t scan over the head of the person with whom you’re speaking to find someone “better” with whom you’d prefer to speak. It’s inexcusably rude, and I’ve seen it flatline conversations and ruin opportunities.
That being said, it’s OK to explain to your small talk partner that you’re working and need to take a call, or that you’re waiting on a text from your spouse, or that you really need to pop over to the other side of the room for a moment to catch someone you’ve been trying to track down all night. It’s just about being kind and considerate. Don’t make someone feel less important than you (newsflash: they aren’t).
If someone introduces themselves to you, focus on their name when they say it, (not on what’s happening around you), or I guarantee you’ll forget it five seconds later. Use their name a couple times in conversation (this will help you remember it). When it’s time to wrap up the conversation, say something like, “Well Sam, it was really nice to meet you. I hope you have a great time in Italy,” or some other small detail that indicates you were paying attention.
5 | Widen The Circle
All of us have been to a party or networking event where we’ve stood awkwardly in the corner, trying to figure out if we should interrupt an established group, or just give up and go home to our sweatpants.
If you’ve managed to get a good conversation going, and you notice another person hovering on the edges, hoping to join in, make it easy on them.
Often, physically widening the circle in which you’re standing is sufficient. You’d be amazed how much work body language alone can do! But sometimes it helps to turn to the person and directly address them (i.e. “What did you think about the keynote speaker? We’re split and need a tie-breaker.)
Once you’ve successfully folded them into your group, you’ve got fresh blood who can help carry the conversation, a new person about whom you can learn, and a good way to step out and go speak with someone else. (“It sounds like you two have a lot to talk about! I’m going to refresh my drink, hopefully I’ll bump into you again later.”)
6 | Be Genuine
This is 100% the most important part. Don’t be fake, people! Humans are intuitive. We know when you’re schmoozing us because you want something. We also know when you’re genuinely fascinated by our amateur rock climbing hobby, or truly interested in our opinion on the best wine bar in town.
Sometimes small talk sucks simply because it’s a bunch of fake people faking their interest. Don’t be party to that nonsense! Ask questions to which you truly want to know the answers. Maybe you don’t want to see 173 photos of our newest grandchild. But perhaps you’re interested to learn that we have 24 grandkids total, and one is an actual rocket scientist.
If you can have a genuine conversation with someone, you may even establish a genuine friendship. Or at the very least, you might not want to stab out your own eyeballs with a decorative toothpick that you swiped from the now room-temperature cheese plate.
Follow these six suggestions and I promise you’ll be a small talk pro in no time at all! Even if you would rather be home with a good book, a glass of wine, and cat on your lap . . .