The Art of Making Successful Small Talk

(Special contribution from interviewed guest, Dr.Bernardo Carducci.)

Prior to the holidays, I launched a new round of interviews about social health, which was kicked off with this great interview with Dr. Bernardo Carducci, who is the Director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. As promised, here’s a follow-up guest post from Dr.Carducci which outlines some practical ways to improve one’s small talk skills. Soon, we’ll also be adding audio interviews in addition to written ones.

The “Formula” for Making Successful Small Talk: A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Connect, Not Just Converse, with Others

Step One: Setting Talk: Getting Started. Begin with setting talk, such as making comments about the weather or other facets of the environment (e.g., “Boy, this line is long.”). The purpose of setting talk is to let others know that you are willing to make conversation, nothing more, nothing less. So, don’t feel like your setting-talk remarks have to be witty or brilliant. It’s best to keep them simple.

Step Two: The Personal Introduction: Who You Are, Something About You. Proceed to personal introductions. In addition to clearly enunciating your name, you can anticipate the next question and provide information about what you do for a living or recreation. A common mistake made by bad conversationalists is to provide only a terse comment within the personal introduction, such as “I work at the mall.” A more constructive response might be, “I work at the mall selling cell phones, and you would not believe the reasons people give me for wanting a cell phone.” This provides hooks for others to latch on to--"So, tell us some of the stories” or “I saw this news program on some interesting advances in cell phone technology.” —so that the conversation can begin to flow.

Another strategy is to prepare a small and preferably charming opening statement. I remember a party that took place at the time of a well-publicized trial. One guest who was a lawyer introduced himself, “My name is John Doe and I’m one of the bad guys.” Immediately, he broke the ice with self-deprecating humor and was peppered with friendly questions that kept him going a long time. So, a simple, pre-planned personal introduction can help jumpstart a conversation.

Step 3: Pretopical Selection: Fishing for Topics. Next, move to pretopical selection by throwing out topics for possible discussion. “I really like this movie.” The implicit rule is, when someone throws out a topic, support it either by asking a question or making a comment. Bad conversationalists often think they need to say something critical or brilliant; unable to do either, they say nothing at all. Also, you shouldn’t feel like a failure if people don't respond to the topic you’ve tossed out. It may take two or three attempts until you hit on a topic that triggers a response.

Step Four: Posttopical Elaboration: Expanding the Topic. Now, advance to post-topical elaboration by associating the topic of conversation to other related topics. For example when talking about the vacations, you might say, “Speaking of vacations, we had some great Caribbean food on our last vacation. Now you can talk about food or food-related topics (e.g., other ethnic foods, cooking shows, music heard in restaurants). It’s the give-and-take of post-topical elaboration that makes conversing so much fun.

Step Five: Conversation Termination: A Gracious Ending that Creates the Connection. Finally, when terminating a conversation, let the person know you’ll be leaving soon, express gratitude for the conversation, summarize some of the major points, and set the stage for future conversation. For example, you can say, “I really must be going soon, but I had a great time chatting with you. I really appreciate your comments about that new movie. Here’s my card. Call me if you know of any other movies you think I might enjoy.”

Here are a few more pieces of advice to remember: Bad conversationalists also tend to get stuck at setting talk. Or they spend too much time focused on their favorite topic, whether it’s baseball statistics or Star Wars. They think they are being social because they are talking and talking and talking. When they dominate the conversation, they are talking at someone, not with someone. To avoid the trap of favorite topic, make sure to stop periodically to give others a chance to contribute to, expand on, or change the topic of conversation.

Special thanks to Dr.Carducci for taking the time to share his insights with Huffington Post readers this week.

Check back soon for another installment in the How to Smalltalk Series. In my next post, I’ll be sharing a Shyness Quiz from Dr.Carducci that you won’t want to miss. Or check out Truth or Dare: The Podcast That Boosts Your Social Health.

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