The Handbook

The Art of
Small Talk

Anyone who's ever been caught at a wedding reception, business conference or party awkwardly discussing how nice the weather is knows that making small talk isn't as easy as one might think. On the contrary, conversing with strangers can be difficult and, at times, even painful. There is an art to making small talk, and it can be mastered. Here are four solid ways to turn idle chatter into a real conversation.

Don't Close Yourself Off


Our nonverbal body language accounts for the majority of how others perceive us. Make sure that you look approachable and when you're talking, make others feel comfortable and show that you're listening by utilizing the popular "SOFTEN" formula by psychologist Dr. Arthur Wassmer.




Open posture

Meaning don't stand with your arms folded defensively across your chest.


Forward lean

While speaking and listening, lean in, toward the other person to indicate interest.



A good handshake conveys confidence, interest and sincerity.


Eye contact

When speaking, look away now and then to collect your thoughts, but when listening, eye contact is vital.



Rather than standing back, looking stiff, simply nodding along as someone speaks offers nonverbal feedback.

Look for Stories,
Not Answers


Journalist Chris Colin and comedy writer Rob Baedeker suggest asking open-ended questions in their book What to Talk About. "Aim for questions that invite people to tell stories, rather than give bland, one-word answers." And conversely, when someone asks you something that could easily be answered with a one-word answer, expand your answers to provide the other person with more information to keep the conversation flowing.

Instead of ... "How was your day?"
Try ... "What did you do today?"
Instead of ... "What do you do?"
Try ... "How'd you end up in your line of work?"
Instead of ... "How was your weekend?"
Try ... "What was the best part of your weekend?"
Instead of ... "Any plans this week?"
Try ... "What are you looking forward to this week?"

Mind the Mirroring

Matching someone's tone of voice or talking speed can easily make the other person in the conversation more comfortable. But you don't want to mimic them completely. And nothing stalls a conversation faster than repeating their observations. For example, if someone says, "It's a beautiful day," it seems polite to blandly agree: "Yeah, it's beautiful." But that will paralyze the discussion. Instead, add something personal: "Yeah, on days like this I usually like to get on my bike. Do you ride?"

Remember Names

Introductions often pass by in a blur. In between sips of a drink, names get blurted out quickly and as a result, no one remembers who anyone is. Or if it's an acquaintance you've met before, an introduction may not seem necessary. But that can lead to trouble. The key? Slow down, offer your name and stay present. Try to repeat the other person's name once you learn it to help you remember it. If someone has an unusual name, take time to learn it, advises Debra Fine, lecturer and author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. "Don't just move on," she says. "Say, 'I'm sorry. Let me try that ... did I get it right?'"

Make an Exit

Need to end the conversation? For a clean getaway, try using the phrase "I need to ..."
- Refresh my drink
- Get some food
- Make a phone call
- Catch up with him/her