Small talk: Tips to become a better conversationalist

By: Tanya Debi

Getty Images Author: Canadian Living Credits: Getty Images


Small talk: Tips to become a better conversationalist

By: Tanya Debi
Small talk might seem like a waste of time, but it isn't. Louise Fox, founder of, says small talk "is the basis for every conversation and the preamble to more developed and directed conversations."

If you're one of the many people who get nervous at the thought of making small talk, then these tips from Fox will help you engage more comfortably.

What questions should I ask?
Fox uses the acronym FORM to remember the safe topics: family, occupation, recreation and miscellaneous. You can also check your phone, computer and newspapers to see what's making news. That way, you'll have relevant topics to discuss. "It can just be a couple minutes before you go out, so if someone asks you what's new, you have something to say," says Fox.

On the other hand, there are a handful of questions you shouldn't ask. "Steer clear of questions that are too personal; don't say 'Are you married?' or 'Do you have kids?'" warns Fox. Instead, she suggests indirectly bringing up these topics by asking questions like, "How's your family?" It's less likely to put people on the spot.

"How much does that cost?" and "Have you dyed your hair?" are other questions to avoid. "Update me on what's been going on since the last time I saw you" is a safer alternative. "This is a question people can take anywhere," says Fox.

How do I navigate awkward silences?
Breaks in dialogue become uncomfortable when you either have run out of things to say or need to take a breather. If you're at a networking event or cocktail party, Fox suggests excusing yourself by saying, "It was really nice to meet you, and, if you give me your card, I'd be happy to have coffee and hear about your business."

Another option is to introduce other people into the conversation. "You can say something like, 'Do you know this person?' or 'I know someone you would really enjoy meeting,' and take them to that person," says Fox.

How do I prepare for events where small talk is inevitable?
Fox also recommends the GET (gradual exposure therapy) approach to help you prepare for an upcoming event that will entail networking. "For the first event, go for 10 minutes. The second time, go for 20 minutes. The third time, go for 30 minutes. Gradually begin exposing yourself to more events where small talk is needed."

Fox also encourages people to practice what she refers to as a 60-second elevator speech—a greeting and an introduction, followed by an interesting comment that necessitates a followup question such as "Oh, what is that?" or "How does that work?"

"You can also add a little anecdote into the speech, and a little bit of humour goes a long way," says Fox.

How do I keep the conversation flowing?

To excel at small talk, you also have to be a good listener. If you look bored, the other person will pick up on it and that'll be the end of the conversation. Fox offers her tips for improving your listening skills and keeping others engaged.

- Make eye contact with people. If you struggle with this, try practising with a friend or in front of the mirror.

- Be a "whole body" listener. Face the person you're talking to and be within arm's length of them. Lean in to show interest and to engage with them.

- Nod and give verbal cues such as "Uh-huh," "Oh really" or "I've never heard that before."

- Build a rapport by keeping pace with the speaker. Approximate the speaker's gestures, facial expression and voice patterns to create comfortable communication.

- Be present in the conversation. Our minds tend to drift if we don't consciously focus our attention, and then, before you know it, you have no idea what the other person said.

How do I appropriately exit a conversation?
You can exit a conversation in a similar fashion to how you would end an awkward silence: Bring the person into another conversation. "You can say something like, 'Maybe we should meet some new people. Let's see who we can find,'" suggests Fox. "You can also simply shake that person's hand and say, 'It was a pleasure to meet you. Have a nice evening.'"

Whenever you encounter small talk, the number one rule is to always be prepared with something to talk about because you never know what it can lead too, says Fox. "Small talk has a domino effect; it starts a chain reaction with all kinds of implications for your life."

For more tips on how to beat small talk anxiety, check out our 6 tips to small talk success.

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Small talk: Tips to become a better conversationalist