The Art of Small Talk: how to start and keep a conversation going

We’ve all been there – at a wedding, work function, or gathering – surrounded by people you’ve just met, all trying to make small talk. Sometimes things flow smoothly, you just click. And other times, well, it can be much more difficult.

Conversing with strangers can be awkward, stilted, exhausting, especially if you are more of an introvert. The good news is, there is an art to making small talk, and anyone can master it.

Two great acronyms to help you transition from chit chat to conversation

The ARE Method

Developed by communications expert Dr. Carol Fleming, this is a three-part process to get a conversation started.

A – begin with an anchor, something that connects you with the other person. Since you’ve just met, the most obvious starting off point would be a comment about whatever you are both seeing or experiencing. For example, “What a wonderful turnout to this charity auction”.

Don’t worry about coming up with a clever opening comment, this is a simple pleasantry to open up the conversation.

R – now you want to reveal something about yourself that is related to the anchor you opened with. Using the above example this could be along the lines of, “I’ve been to similar events and haven’t seen this kind of attendance before”.

E – finally, encourage a response by asking a question, “How about you, have you been to many of these auctions before?”

Once the person has answered your question, the key is to keep the ball rolling with follow-up comments and questions. Be sure to strike a balance between these, as too many comments won’t give the other person much of a chance to speak and too many questions could wind up feeling like an interrogation.

If the conversation comes to a lull, transition to another topic. For this, remember the acronym FORM. Ask questions about the other person’s:

Family. Tell me about your family. Do you have children/grandchildren? Do they live close by?

Occupation. What do you do? What do you like most about your job? How did you get into that line of work?

Recreation. What do you do in your spare time? Have you seen any good movies lately? Do you like to travel?

Motivation. Do you have any plans for retirement? Any vacations coming up? What is on your bucket list?

Small talk with casual acquaintances is a bit different than with strangers. You won’t need an anchor or reveal, so these exchanges will usually start with a question.

Many of us resort to the typical, “Hi, how are you?”  Or, “How was your weekend?” Both which come with the typical response… “Good”.

So follow up!

  • How are you? That’s great, what’s been going well?
  • How was your weekend? What did you do?

A few points to remember

  • Offer your name more than once. It is easy to forget the name of the person you just met amid all the introductions. Same goes for them. Help others out by offering up your name and using the names of those around you at the event whenever possible. Repetition aids the memory.
  • Avoid one-word replies. Simply answering with a “yes” or “no” seems abrupt and as though you don’t want to engage in conversation. Soften it up with an explanation for your answer.
  • If you want out of the conversation, make a clean getaway by using the phrase “I need”. For example, “I need to get some food, I haven’t eaten all day.” Or “I need to go over and give my hellos to (whoever just walked in)”. It is good form to mention something from the conversation before departing as well; “I enjoyed hearing about your travels, hope to talk with you again”.

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By Christine Tompa