The Art of Mastering Small Talk

Getty Image/Chris Jackson

3  min read

Oftentimes, I’m asked how to approach people you don’t know (strangers) at a business event or social setting and have a conversation with them. While this is similar to networking, a topic covered previous with helpful tips, I am only going to focus on one thing – how to have a natural conversation with anyone.  My rule of thumb for how to do this is simple: be confident, be genuine in your approach and don’t over think it.

1) Be Confident

Have confidence in yourself, this is the first step to talking to strangers and often the hardest. You have to know or believe in your value first before you can get others to believe in it. This is hard because a lot of people diminish themselves. But if you want to become adept at talking to strangers, you have to realize your value and know that you can add something important to the conversation, no matter how small.

Have you ever been at an event where an individual was quiet for most of it and then someone asked him/her a question about a topic he/she is knowledgeable about and a switch flipped? Many of us are knowledgeable on at least 2 or 3 topics but all of us have one topic of great expertise or high interest. Let that topic give you confidence. Say to yourself, I may not know much but I know this and that is plenty. Whatever method or technique you decide upon, you must find your confidence, realize your value or believe you have something unique to contribute and lead with that.

2) Be Genuine in Your Approach

Have a genuine interest in what the person is saying, even if you’ve had a bad day and could care less (why didn’t you stay home?), you’ve made the decision to show up to the business event or social setting, so let go of your problems ( if only for a little while) and attune your attention to others. Here are some pointers to doing this well:

  • Listen to the individual—try not to dominate the conversation but make it a give and take.
  • Look him/her in the eyes when they are talking—don’t let distractions or your disinterest drift your focus
  • Work on not interrupting people—which can be hard when you don’t know a stranger’s natural pause or intonation. I usually count about 3 seconds after someone stops talking before I begin.
  • Ask questions to show your interest

I’ve said this before, people won’t remember what you said to them, but they will remember how you made them feel. So be genuine in your approach when talking to strangers, especially in a business setting. You never know when your paths might cross again.

3) Don’t Over Think It

What will I say? What if the conversation gets awkward? What if I say the wrong thing? What will they think of me?

The thinking process about what to say to people we don’t know gets us caught up every time. That pressure is our biggest fear and does nothing but make us fraught.

Since you’ve already decided to be confident, which is enough to leave a good first impression regardless of the conversation topic, now let go of your inhibitions and be natural.  My best tip on how to do this is to rethink the situation. Don’t approach it as talking to strangers but as talking to an acquaintance or distant relative. You’ll feel a little more at ease but still have lots to discover about them. Find commonalities by asking about interests, background or travel plans. (Talking about travel is a great way to fill a conversation—many people get really enthused regarding this topic.)

Like everything, this takes practice. Keep at it. Soon you’ll realize the person in the corner of the room in the 3-piece business suit and spectacles isn’t that scary after all.