Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | January 4, 2011

Small talk sucks, or how to have a conversation with anyone

I have a PhD in Communication, am an experienced public speaker, and love being the center of attention. But I’ve always hated making small talk with people I just met. It makes me really nervous and turns me into a babbling, sweaty idiot. This can be a big problem if your job requires that you spend a lot of time meeting people, as many of you fellow startup founders probably know. So I set out to solve my problem like any good scientist would – I spent years researching and testing until I had developed a foolproof formula for small talk success. (Well, something like that. Just read on…)

First, some background

When I was working on my Master’s degree at NC State University, I helped run the Writing and Speaking Tutorial Center. Part of my job there was to give presentations and workshops around campus to help students and staff develop better communication skills. Invariably, workshop attendees would ask for help with conversations and small talk. These workshops were usually focused on more formal topics, like public speaking and presentation skills. We didn’t even offer a conversation workshop; it simply didn’t occur to us that people would want something like that. After all, as many as 75% of people have a fear of public speaking, but I’ve never heard stats like that about conversational communication.

So I began to develop a set of go-to small talk topics and tips I could provide to workshop attendees and students in my classes. I even set aside entire class days to practice conversation. These classes were often my students’ favorite days of the semester.

A few years later, I started going to tech and startup events regularly, as part of my role as a co-founder of a startup. And suddenly I realized why everyone wanted to practice their conversation and small talk skills. This stuff is hard! I remember the first tech happy hour I ever went to in Austin. I stood in a quiet back corner for at least 20 minutes, steeling myself with a beer to go start that initial conversation with whatever unlucky stranger I ran into first. And I’m a pretty chatty, gregarious person, so I didn’t expect to get that nervous (which of course made me even more nervous). I’ve spoken to audiences of a thousand people; why would a conversation with one person freak me out? But there’s something particularly intimidating about those kinds of networking events.

I started to rely on that set of topics and tips I had taught my students. The list was expanded and refined as I worked on my PhD and attended more and more startup and academic events. Even now, I quickly scroll through it in my head at every happy hour, party, conference or seminar I attend in San Francisco and elsewhere, and I can always come up with something to talk to a new person about.

The formula (a.k.a. the Fore Cs)

Which leads to me to what I call the “Fore Cs” (laugh if you want – when I was in high school, I wrote an advice column for our newspaper called “Jennerally Speaking”, so I’m impervious to teasing about my questionable wordplay). Of course the Fore Cs aren’t actually foolproof or magic, but they are a reliable set of topics you can use to get any conversation going. Because I think that’s the hardest part – just getting the conversation going. Once you get started, you’re golden.

  • Family – Do you have any children? Spouse/partner?
  • Occupation – What do you do for a living? Where do you work?
  • Recreation – What do you do for fun? Any hobbies?
  • Education – Where did you go to school? Been to/ever thought about grad school?
  • Community – What neighborhood do you live in? Have you always lived here? What’s your favorite restaurant in the area?
  • Current events – Did you hear about a recent news event?
  • Calendar – What are your plans for the upcoming holiday?
  • Climate – Can you believe this weather?

These topics are not listed in order of importance or usefulness. Depending on the situation, some will be more appropriate than others. And please don’t ask these questions exactly the way they are written (if you do, you might be the most boring person at the event). Instead think of them as generic examples you should customize, fill in and expand upon for your own use. Try to contextualize or personalize these topics as much as you can, given the specific event and person you’re talking to. Use these topics as starting points and poke around until you find something that your conversation partner latches on to. And yes, some of these are most definitely clichés (anything about the weather, for example), but can they still work to get a conversation started. You just need to break the ice.

To round it out, some conversation tips

Even if you have a list of possible topics to discuss, a good conversation needs more than a topic. Here are a few other conversation tips:

  • When in doubt, discuss the event itself. This isn’t listed in the Fore Cs (mostly because it doesn’t fit), but it’s a great way to get started. Discuss how you know the host, how you heard about it, what you learned, etc…
  • Introduce yourself. If you see someone standing alone at an event, just go up to her/him and say hello. If you’re the one to start the conversation, you’ll feel more confident.
  • Find something in common. It won’t take long before you find something you share with your conversation partner. Take advantage of that. Whether it’s a common acquaintance, shared interest, or overlap in work history, anything that you two have in common will make for an easier and more interesting conversation.
  • Keep it short. Don’t dominate the conversation or talk too long in one conversational turn. Remember that this is a multi-party conversation, and other people want to participate so share the floor.
  • Ask questions. Engage the person you’re talking to by asking questions. These can follow-up or probing questions that continue one conversational line, or questions that start an entirely new topic. Either way, questions are a good way to get the other person to talk while you get more comfortable.
  • Be an active listener. Nod and use other nonverbal listening cues to indicate to the other person that you’re actively engaged in the conversation. A little encouragement goes a long way.
  • Smile. It sounds silly, but if your face is relaxed, you’ll start to feel more relaxed. Plus, you’ll be more approachable with a smile on your face.
  • Don’t be a douche. Stop pitching and start talking. Networking events are primarily about building relationships and no matter how cool your startup is, most of us go to those events to meet people and relax a little. We don’t want your 10-minute elevator pitch (unless we ask you for it, then feel free to give it to us).
  • Practice. You’ll get better at this. You just have to keep doing it.
  • Remember that most people are nice. They’re at that event for the same reason you are – to meet people. There’s really nothing to be worried about.

This is certainly not a completely comprehensive list of topics or tips, but they have worked for me. I’d love to hear what sorts of things work for you. How do you handle small talk? What works for you (or what doesn’t)?

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Responses

  1. Brilliant and practical advice, Jenn. I will use this with my class this semester. Do you have a list of off-limit topics? Religion? How attracted I am to one’s spouse? I try to avoid those, jennerally speaking.

    • Good question! I should come up with a list of things to avoid in first conversations with new people. Religion would be on that list. Politics, too. And anything about your sexual history (or how hot you think someone’s spouse is) or your criminal past. And whether you think the best Mission burritos come from Taqueria Cancun or Papalote.

  2. I have started using your Fore C’s regularly… I forgot the acronym, but I’ve found myself running through the mental checklist of topics (especially the family, education, climate, and current events). I find them useful for everyday conversation with my current friends as well as strangers. I am bookmarking this blog entry. =)

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hatchling Heather, Annette Priest. Annette Priest said: RT @davidgiesberg Small talk sucks, or how to have a conversation with anyone: http://t.co/Kh9yvrP from @jdeeringdavis […]

  4. Great tips! I take a deep breath and plunge into small talk at these events but what I find to be the most awkward point is the “um… okay, nice meeting you…bye” part. You mention that it’s important to keep it short, which I agree is totally key — any thoughts on good ways to end/wander away from small talk (before the gap in conversation makes it painfully obvious that both of you are ready to “go get a cup of water, excuse me”)?

    • I wish I knew! I’m pretty terrible at the ending part of a conversation. Besides the standard excuses (new drink, saying hello to another friend, text message or phone call), I don’t have a good answer to this. Maybe someone else has advice on how to appropriately end a conversation?

  5. Just ran across this and I thought it was useful – http://storycorps.org/record-your-story/question-generator/list/

  6. Seems odd to me. Small talk should be a spontaneous thing, not something one would have to take classes for. But still I must respect the work you’ve put into it. Nice article, though I believe that it would benefit only those unfortunate enough to lack the gift of gab.

  7. The only observation I have is that the order is wrong when you line in UK – Climate is ALWAYS the first !!!

    • Doesn’t talking about rain and fog get old quickly?
      just kidding, of course 🙂

      • Ha, same goes for San Francisco. 🙂

  8. @Alan- I guess thats because for some people small talk come naturally to them and hence they feel it is and should be a spontaneous thing. But for unfortunate of us who lack that capability, it is another skill that needs to be learned to survive in the society.

  9. @Jenn – Thanks a lot for this post, i believe it will be very useful for some of us who need a kind of step by step instruction for everything. :-p

  10. At events, I like to start conversations with a near-empty drink or plate. This gives me an easy “out” so I can say that I’m headed back to the bar or buffet. (And if you’re into the conversation, you can always invite that person back too for a refill.)

    Also, at networking events and parties, I find it easier to join in a conversation already in progress with a small group. Most of the time you will easily be non-verbally invited in (space made for you). It’s a lot less awkward to be one-in-a-few than one-on-one. It’s also easy to say “did I hear you guys just talking about…” and interject a comment.

    Oppositely, if there is some other person at the event by him/herself, it’s almost a sure thing that if you go to talk to them, there will at least be SOME kind of an exchange. That person will be appreciative to not be standing alone, and will likely reciprocate pleasantries.

    And for event planners reading this, a lot of people do much better (make more connections, exchange more info, etc.) if there is some kind of specific activity going on. ANYTHING that isn’t just standing around talking, but is conducive to talking works. My best networking events have been casino nights (you can play or watch, and chit-chat is natural), or have some hands-on thing. Even while waiting in line, there is a natural opportunity to chat, even if it starts like “this line stinks. Why can’t they let us serve on both sides of the buffet…”

    Oh, and nametags are a MUST! This makes networking more effective. You meet someone for 10 seconds in line, then when you see them somewhere later, you know their name still.

    And drinks help.

    • Stuart, this is incredibly helpful advice! Thank you for your comment.

      I hope event planners are reading this, because I agree completely. Nametags, an activity, and drinks can help break that initial tension many people feel in these situations.

  11. The classic work in this area is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. Although written in the 1930s, it’s timeless, and as relevant today as then; people are still people.

    This book will give you a lot more people-oriented skills than just small talk. One key idea: Everyone is an expert on themselves, so if you show genuine interest in someone and get them to start talking about themselves, the conversation effortlessly takes off on its own from that point.

    • That is a great resource, Alan. I also like Robert B. Cialdini’s “Influence”.

  12. Regarding ending the conversation – I find that saying ‘I no longer find you interesting’ usually ends it quite well.

  13. For me small talk with people I already know usually starts with an inquiry about their health, about their children, about their holidays — past or plans for future. I have found that this usually breaks the ice. My feeling is that if you can get the other person to respond to you the beginning has been made. appreciation of the other person’s achievements, about the speech or presentation he/she has just made is another good thing which is a surefire method of getting a positive response.

  14. For ending a conversation, perhaps mentioning how hard it can be to end a conversation and agreeing that you’ll talk for X minutes and see where you are, though that really only works if its brought up at the beginning of the conversation. Otherwise the person your talking too might think your bored of them

  15. Saying that, I usually end up just letting things get awkward and slowly wonder away without a word, which is a terrible approach.

  16. […] started 10 or more years ago are still incredibly valuable to me today. (PS – I wrote up some small talk tips if you need something to get […]

  17. […] started 10 or more years ago are still incredibly valuable to me today. (PS – I wrote up some small talk tips if you need something to get […]


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