With holiday work parties, family gatherings, and social events on the calendar, it might be time to brush up on your small-talk skills. Small talk, although often about unimportant things, serves the important purpose of being a social lubricant, helping you and others interact. Small talk allows you to assess mood, interests, and potential for business or personal relationships. Small talk can lead to more substantial conversations, and these seven tips can help you get there.
In this Toastmasters Podcast episode, author, speaker, and presentation coach Diane Windingland, DTM, offers tips to help you make the most of small talk.
1 Ask open-ended, specific questions.
Encourage others to talk by asking open-ended questions that can’t be answered with just a “yes” or “no.” You can use the phrase “Tell me about …” to elicit longer responses or to avoid asking questions that might be uncomfortable to answer. Try “Tell me about your family,” instead of “Are you married?” Specific questions (e.g., “What were your favorite holiday traditions as a child?”) are better than general questions (e.g., “How are you?”) because they provide context for the other person to frame an answer around. Good small-talk topics include:
- Questions about the location or event: “What brought you to this event/location?”
- Leisure activities (hobbies, sports, travel, movies, or weekend plans): “What are you looking forward to this weekend?”
- Professional interests: “What do you enjoy the most about your profession?”
2 Try the CAAA approach to break the ice.
CAAA is an acronym for a four-step process to help you initiate conversation and not simply ask question after question like you are conducting an interrogation.
- Comment positively on something you observe or have in common (like the event) or observe and compliment a person’s unique attire. Consider wearing a “conversation piece” item yourself (such as a Toastmasters pin) to have a handy topic to discuss.
- Ask an easy-to-answer, open-ended question related to your comment.
- Affirm their answer after listening to their response, ideally paraphrasing what they said.
- Add to the conversation by extending the topic with your own experience or by pivoting to another related topic. (You can also ask a follow-up question.)
Here is a CAAA example:
Situation: Two people who don’t know each other are standing in line for desserts at a holiday work party.
Person 1 (Comment and ask): “Wow! All the desserts look delicious! What looks especially good to you?”
Person 2: “I’ve got my eye on the crème brûlée.”
Person 1 (Affirm and add): “Ahh … Crème brûlée. That’s my favorite. My mom made it for special occasions and it brings back many memories. I bet you have some foods that bring back memories.”
As you converse, you will want to focus on finding common ground topics you can take to a deeper level.
3 Pay attention to body language and actively listen.
People communicate using much more than just the words they speak. You can encourage people to talk with your body language. Try using NOSE-y body language.
- Nod—Nod to engage with what they are saying.
- Open Body Language—Keep your arms uncrossed and your hands visible.
- Smile—Smile when you first initiate conversation and keep a pleasant expression.
- Eye Contact—Make eye contact as culturally appropriate.
You can also encourage the other person to continue speaking by using small verbal comments like, “uh huh.” At the same time, you want to actively listen and notice the other person’s body language and tone of voice. You can’t do that if you are distracted by non-related thoughts or your phone. Focus on the other person. And then respond by occasionally reflecting back (“So, what you’re saying is ...”) and asking clarifying questions.
4 Consider cultural differences.
“Small talk differs across cultures, not only in how it’s done but also in terms of its role and importance in business communication,” says Andy Molinsky, the author of Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process. “In many cultures—especially those with more formal rules for communication and with a strong emphasis on social hierarchy—it’s considered inappropriate to engage in casual conversation with superiors. In addition, it can also feel impolite and even dangerous to openly express your opinion during small talk, especially if it could potentially conflict with the other person’s opinion.”
5 Avoid awkward topics.
While acceptable small-talk topics vary depending on culture, you generally want to avoid discussing the following topics with someone you don’t know well:
- Your health issues
- Personal/confidential information
- Controversial topics
- Inappropriate jokes
“Holidays can mean the ideal family get-together or a day of awkward moments, uncomfortable silences, and eruptions of family feuds,” says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. “Personal questions you do not know the answer to are never a good idea. For example, you will want to avoid conversational landmines such as, ‘How is it that your son looks just like you and your daughter looks like she could be from a different family?’ or ‘When are you two going to make me a grandmother?”’
Encourage others to talk by asking open-ended questions that can’t be answered with just a “yes” or “no.”
If you make an awkward comment, you can admit it, apologize, and maybe even laugh about it. “To laugh is sometimes a release. And it acknowledges, ‘Oh, that came out a little oddly!’” says Lucinda Harman, DTM, of Shilling Speakers in Havant, England. “Generally, you can then move on. If you get rattled or try to hide it, it gets worse.”
6 Construct a conversation resume.
“The conversation resume allows you to remind yourself that you’re not such a boring person after all,” says Patrick King, author of Better Small Talk: Talk to Anyone, Avoid Awkwardness, Generate Deep Conversations, and Make Real Friends. “It’s the difference between having a good answer or story when someone asks, ‘What did you do last weekend?’ versus simply saying, ‘Oh, not too much. Some TV. What about you?”’ King suggests regularly updating your conversation resume with talking points about your daily life, personal background, notable experiences, and current events. Review this resume before you head into socially intense situations. “If you’ve ever felt like your mind was going blank, this is the cure!”
7 Practice in Toastmasters.
Improve your small-talk skills in Toastmasters by participating in the impromptu speaking practice of Table Topics® and looking for ways to incorporate conversation in your club meetings, like a game session.
Pre-pandemic, when most members were meeting in person, they often had casual conversations before, after, and sometimes during a meeting. It’s much more challenging to engage in small talk in online meetings, where it seems the etiquette is to talk to everyone or don’t talk. You can build a little extra time at the beginning and end of meetings for unstructured conversation, or open meetings with individual check-ins or an icebreaker question. Some clubs use breakout rooms in online meetings for small group networking or small group topic discussions as part of Table Topics. You can reach out in the chat feature to individuals for written small talk, too.
Small talk might start small. It might be quick. It might seem irrelevant at first. But ultimately, small talk is about human connection. It’s worth making an effort.
Diane Windingland, DTM is a presentation coach from Spring, Texas, and a member of three clubs: Frankly Speaking Toastmasters in Spring, Texas, and PowerTalk Toastmasters and Readership Toastmasters, both in Minnesota. Learn more at virtualspeechcoach.com.