A show of hands: How many of you have, within a minute or 2 of meeting someone asked, “Where are you from?” or “What do you?” Be honest–I can tell when you’re lying. 🙂 Again, by a show of hands: How many of you are not terrifically fond of answering those questions? So why in the world would that be the first question you ask? But it’s not your fault! No one has likely taught you how to make small talk. Yet.
How to Not Make Small Talk
The worst thing we can do when we are in a situation that requires small talk, like meeting people for the first time, being at a meeting & not everyone is there yet, seeing people in the break room, etc., is to pepper questions at people.
How many times does someone ask you a broad question like, “What’s going on in your life?” for which you have no answer. It puts us on the spot & we can never think of what’s going on in our lives!
Worst Small Talk Questions
When meeting people for the first time, we tend to say, “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” That’s not original at all. People have been answering those questions about themselves for many years. And they usually take it very seriously.
Isn’t it funny when you tell people where you’re from, they will tell you their opinion about where you’re from? I’m from New York originally, and when I meet random people in my travels, they often tell me that they don’t like NY. Isn’t that rude? Never tell anyone you don’t like the place where they’re from. Most people feel like where they’re from is part of their identity.
The other funny response to “where are you from?” is when people tell you they’ve been there or ask you if you know someone from there.
But most often, asking those questions leads to a brick wall in the conversation.
How to Make Small Talk
The best way to start a conversation and make small talk is to tell a story that evokes emotion. I arm my clients with an Arsenal of Anecdotes to have at the ready. These should be between 15 to 30 seconds. They should contain human emotions, like fear or embarrassment. Everyone loves an embarrassing story!
The point is to get people to speak without putting them on the spot by asking questions. Did you ever notice that when someone tells you a story, a related story that happened to you pops into your head? Sometimes you don’t even get to finish your tale before people are clamoring to tell you the story that your story made them think of.
Your stories make people want to talk. The point is to get people talking, right?
I met a new friend for brunch on Sunday. I told him what had happened that morning–a neighbor’s parrot climbed up my leg and scared the bejaysus out of me. (She was away & I was to go in periodically to fill the water & the food dish.) After I told him my frightening story, he immediately told me his scary story about a squirrel. We were cracking up laughing at our silliness, and the conversation flowed smoothly from there.
Those kinds of stories are great ice-breakers, and they deepen your relationships. Warmth is an essential factor you should emanate. It’s like Amy Cuddy says: “While competence is highly valued, it is evaluated only after trust is established. And focusing too much on displaying your strength can backfire.” That’s another reason learning how to make small talk is so important.
Arsenal of Anecdotes
Ok, if you know you’re going to be seeing someone you don’t know well, and specifically, if you’re afraid you don’t know what to say to that person, you’ll want to work on your arsenal. Think about something that happened to you that was maybe a little embarrassing and tell that story a few times to yourself. Practice various funny stories.
You’ll also want to be observant of the funny things that happen around you and to you. They make great fodder! If you had a crazy Uber ride on the way over, it could be a great ice-breaker. And it can help people open up.
You’re not going to be excellent at this the first few times. That’s ok. With a little practice & recording of yourself (DunDunDunDuuuuuun!) You’ll be awesome in no time. Soon you’ll be telling amazing stories off-the-cuff.
We’re here to help you with your Arsenal of Anecdotes whenever you’re ready.
Work on the Answers to Common Questions
There’s no reason why we can’t have exciting answers available for the inevitable questions people ask you because they don’t know how to make small talk. So when someone asks where you’re from, you can tell them a funny story about your hometown. Or a story about something that happened when you were growing up.
The answer to the question, “what do you do?” also needs to be designed & rehearsed. It’s essentially your elevator pitch. So that when you are making small talk with someone who’s posed that question to you, they can hire you. Always frame the answer to that small talk query from your listeners’ perspective.
You may have small talk questions that you get a lot that are specific to you. You’ll want to record yourself answering them, then listen and refine it for conciseness & humor.
How to Make Small Talk
Search for how to make small talk on the internet & you’ll find a barrage of people trying to tell you to ask questions. I’ve even seen one where they want you to describe scenarios and ask people, “what you would do if…?” That just seems weird & contrived to me. Might be a fun game in the car on a road trip with your family.
Watch this video of Ita Olsen: Why am I Not Automatically an Incredible Speaker