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I’m heading out to a conference in the morning. It’s designed to be a highly interactive event, and I have never met any of the other participants. To make myself feel at ease, I’ve researched some pointers on how to make small talk when you are among strangers.
You see, I can step out of my shell when I know I need to – when I know it’s up to me to seek out other people to talk to, to have a conversation with, to create new friendships. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Small talk does not come naturally to me, so I find myself planning ahead, both in terms of conversations and how to start them.
Mastering Small Talk Can Be a Big Deal
Some people are natural-born talkers. My friend Pat often jokes about how she could have a conversation with a light post (she probably could!). Like the majority of people in the world, I consider myself to be friendly and outgoing when I’m around people I know, but less so among people who I haven’t met. I know there are others out there whose anxiety never really lessens when they are in groups where small talk is required.
There are ways to prepare for these situations and make them more comfortable, regardless of your comfort levels with groups of strangers.
Break The Ice by Giving Off a Good Impression
Nothing makes as good an impression as a genuine smile. Think about why you are at this event – after all, you chose to be there for one reason or another. Let people know you are happy to be there. Show it with a smile.
Your body language will also set you up for interactions. Uncross your arms, take your hands out of your pockets, stand at an angle toward others. All of these are cues that you are approachable and friendly. Looking defensive, scared, or anxious will only intensify those feelings, as well as discourage others from speaking to you. Look up and at others, keep your body posture relaxed, arms at your sides and palms open. Unclench your fists!
Put your phone away! Nothing says “I don’t want to talk to you” like someone engrossed in their phone. Step away from that safety zone and prepare to communicate with others in person, not on a device.
Small talk is the biggest talk we do.Susan RoAne
Techniques to Master Small Talk
Don’t cling to the first person you meet, even if you feel very comfortable with them. Make it a point to circulate amongst the crowd on your own. A team of two who do everything together only get to know each other – you are where you are for a larger purpose.
Watch for people on the periphery. That woman hovering near the snack bar? The man standing alone, staring out the window? Chances are, these people are trying to find their place in the event, and will welcome your approach as someone they can talk to. It might be scary to make the first move, but they might be even more anxious than you, and will be so thankful you did!
If everyone seems to be clustered into groups, watch for openings. When someone walks away from a group, step into the opening and spend a few minutes just listening, so that you can catch up on the conversation. This allows you to get a feel for everyone else’s personalities and interests, as well as demonstrating your listening skills – the most extroverted people in the room will love having you nearby!
Be the Introducer. When someone joins a group you are in, make a point to welcome them and include them in the conversation. People will remember that you made them feel comfortable, and will go out of their way to do the same for you if the opportunity arises.
Create a Personal Challenge. If you approach the event with a personal challenge, you will be motivated to interact. Try to find five people from your industry, two art lovers, one who saw a good movie recently, three who have dogs. Whatever you can think of, will challenge you to open up and talk – as well as giving you topics to discuss!
Good listeners are perceived as good conversationalists.
Susan RoAne, author of “How to Work a Room”
How to Start and Continue Small Talk Conversations
Now that you’ve presented yourself as friendly, and found people to talk to, how do you start a conversation and keep it moving? Here are some steps to master small talk:
Be yourself, always – but offer up the best version of yourself.
Keep it positive – Mention that hike you went on over the weekend, but don’t talk about how tired you are. Bring up a favorite hobby, but don’t whine about the fact that you are too busy to pursue it right now.
Avoid standard questions such as “What do you do?” and “Where are you from?”, except for early in the event before everyone has heard them from every other person they’ve spoken with. No one wants to have the same conversation a dozen times in one evening.
Avoid questions that can be answered in one word. Try asking “why” or “how” instead of “what”.
Balance the length of your responses to questions. Don’t give one word answers, but try to keep your response time to about twenty seconds. You want to give enough information for a follow-up question, but you don’t want to start a monologue.
Ask for advice. People love to give advice. Keep the topic light, though – nothing overly personal.
Be truly interested in the speaker. Listen to what he or she says, rather than just thinking about what you will say next. If you are really disinterested, don’t fake it – excuse yourself and move on to another group or person.
Give sincere compliments.
They say, You can’t give a smile away; it always comes back. The same is true of a kind word or a conversation starter. What goes around, comes around.
Susan RoAne, author of “How to Work a Room”
Final Thoughts on How to Master Small Talk and Feel Comfortable Among Strangers
No matter the situation, remember that it is normal to feel some anxiety when you make small talk with strangers. You are not alone – most of the people you are speaking with feel the same, regardless of how confident they look. But with practice, anyone has the ability to master the art of small talk.
Remember to treat everyone with the kindness and respect you would like to receive, and you just might find yourself having a wonderful time.