Useful Guide to Small Talk
Like it or not, small talk is integral to your success. Whether you’re networking, speaking with a new prospect, or warming up a customer before upselling them or asking for a referral, you must be able to build rapport with casual conversation. To help you master this crucial skill, we’ve written a comprehensive guide to small talk.
What Is Small Talk
Small talk is a light, informal conversation. It’s commonly used when you’re talking to someone you don’t know very well and at networking and social events.
How to Make Small Talk
There are four strategies that’ll help you make small talk in any situation. First, ask open-ended questions. Most people enjoy talking about themselves — not only are we favorite subjects, but it’s also easier to discuss yourself than something you know little about. Think about it: Would you have a harder time speaking about 14th-century glass-blowing or your favorite book? Open-ended questions generate an interesting, dynamic conversation and encourage the person you’re speaking with to open up.
Second, practice active listening. It’s tempting to tune out occasionally, but you’ll forge much stronger connections if you pay attention. The other person will notice how engaged you seem. In addition, it’s much easier to ask relevant questions and remembers details to bring up later if you’re not listening with one ear.
Third, put away your phone. We tend to pull out our phones when we’re feeling uncomfortable or awkward in social situations, but nothing will sabotage your conversational efforts more quickly. Few people will approach you if you’re scrolling through your phone — and you’ll send a plain message to anyone you’re already talking to that you’re not interested.
Fourth, show your enthusiasm. Small talk might not always be the most stress-free activity. However, if you go into it with the right attitude, you can actually have fun. View these conversations as opportunities to learn more about other people. You never know whom you’ll meet or what they’ll have to share — so embrace the chance it’ll be an amazing discussion.
The location or the venue
Discuss your surroundings. Are you in a beautiful hotel, home, or conference area? Is the town noteworthy? Did you recently visit somewhere cool nearby?
Talk about what you’ve enjoyed lately and what’s on your list. That might include the Netflix show either of you are binge-watching, the last movie each of you saw, the books you’re reading, the podcasts you’re streaming, any plays you’ve attended, and so on.
If the person you’re speaking to enjoys art, ask them which museums they’ve gone to and would like to visit, their favorite exhibits, which artists they enjoy, if they have any recommendations for galleries, which genre and medium of art they prefer, how their interest developed, and so on.
You can also discuss changes in the art world. Are there any new trends developing they’re interested in (like “post-internet art”)? What are their thoughts?
Food is one of the best small talk topics since almost everyone loves to eat. Ask which restaurants they’d recommend and the dishes you should order. If they don’t eat out often, ask which dishes they like to make at home. Describe an upcoming scenario and get their opinion on what you should cook or bring. For example, “I’m responsible for dessert for a housewarming party. There are 10 people coming — two vegans, one person with a nut allergy, and another who doesn’t eat gluten. What would you suggest?”
Delve into the other person’s passions. They’ll be enthusiastic to talk about what they love, and you’ll get the chance to connect with them on a deeper level.
Ask what they do in their free time, which activities they participate in outside of work (and how they became involved), what their childhood hobbies were versus now, whether they’re taking any classes, and what they’d like to try (sushi-making, novel-writing, salsa dancing, etc.).
Talking about your day jobs can be tricky. You don’t want the conversation to devolve into a boring comparison of what you do — which it quickly will unless you steer toward more interesting territory. On the other hand, work is a good small talk topic because the vast majority of people have something to say.
Instead of asking generic questions like, “Where do you work?” “How long have you worked there?” and “Do you like it?”, use interesting, unexpected ones such as:
“My [niece/son/grandchild] wants to become a [profession]. Do you have any advice I should pass on?”
“What’s your favorite aspect of your job? Why did you decide to work in [X field]?”
“Many of my clients in [X role] tell me [Y detail about job]. Has that held true in your experience?”
“Which skill do you use the most in your work? Is that what you expected?”
“What’s the stereotype of a [job title]? Does it hold up?”
“Is there anything you didn’t anticipate about this role? Do you like or dislike that?”
Some people could talk about sports all day. Others would rather talk about anything but. There are a few rules of thumb for discussing sports. First, if you’re in a group of two-plus people, make sure everyone is a sports fan. You don’t want to exclude someone from participating.
Second, while an enthusiastic conversation is fun, a heated one won’t help your networking goals whatsoever. If you or the other person starts getting riled up, change the topic.
8. The weather
Weather is the ultimate small talk topic. It’s typically not the most scintillating conversation starter, but with a little creativity, you can spark some engaging discussions. Ask about the other person’s plans given the weather (for example, if it’s rainy are they going to stay at home and watch movies? If it’s sunny, are they going to have a BBQ, do something outdoorsy, go on a hike, eat dinner on their patio, etc.?)
You can also discuss their favorite type of climate and why they like it. This frequently turns into a discussion about their personality, which can be fun and interesting. Get them talking about the climate in their hometown. Is it different from where they live now? The same? Which type do they enjoy more? If they could choose to live anywhere based solely on the weather conditions, where would it be?
Seasonal rituals and traditions are handy conversation-starters as well. Do they do anything special this time of year? Are there any places they visit, trips they take, people they see, or other activities they do?
Not everyone you speak with will be a world traveler, but asking if they’ve traveled anywhere interesting lately can open up a world of possibilities. From weekend trips an hour away to big summer vacations, or bucket list journeys — this question can get even the most reserved prospects gushing about cherished memories or exciting upcoming adventures.
Make sure you have some follow-up questions about what they plan to do on their trip. What foods they’re most excited to try. And what souvenirs they’re planning to bring home.
Their local favorites
HubSpot Director of Sales Dan Tyre has a trick every rep can use. Before a call with a prospect, he Googles their town. Often, the people he’s speaking with life in towns Dan’s never visited, but with a two-minute search, he knows about their hottest new restaurant, what the weather is like currently, and which landmarks the locals love.
He uses this knowledge to wow his prospects with questions like, “Have you made it to [Insert hot new local play here] yet?” or “Are you staying cool over there? I hear it’s going to be in the ’90s this week.” This extra step puts the prospect at ease, shows them Dan cares about what they care about and builds immediate rapport.