Whether at conferences, job interviews or even more so at networking events: When you want to talk to people you do not know yet, small talk can break the ice. The art of small talk is to find and share common interests. So it is better you don’t go like a bull at a gate.

What is small talk?

  • Short conversation in a relaxed atmosphere
  • Conversation stays superficial
  • Topics are not (yet) discussed in depth
  • Topics are not too controversial
  • Relationship management is more important than the purely objective exchange of facts.

Goals in small talk

  • Making contacts – cultivating relationships
  • Finding out common interests and values = reducing distance
  • Introduction to a topic that is of interest to both parties
  • Stay positivee, do not take extreme positions

If time allows, be sure to go to public events early. This way you have a good chance of getting into conversation with other people.

Obviously, the theme of the event is a good way to make contact: “Good afternoon. What do you expect from today’s lecture?” or “What are you particularly interested in future scenarios?” The break and the end of the event are great ways to get started with questions like “What are you taking with you from today’s lecture?” or “How did you like Ms. Vogel’s presentation?”


Open and closed questions

In order to keep the conversation going, open W questions are suitable, which your conversation partner cannot simply answer with “Yes” or “No”. Questions that start with Who – How – What – Where – When – With usually require a more detailed answer than a simple “Yes” or “No”.

First of all, small talk is a non-binding, informal conversation. This way, you can quickly find out whether you share common interests with your dialog partner. Small talk works best if you are open to a variety of topics and interested in your conversation partner. Listen to others, let them talk and refer to their statements. But frequently enough I experience the following: one person interrupts the other in the middle of a sentence. Obviously, there is a lack of interest in the other person. Does this person want to distinguish himself at the expense of the other?

Of course, you do not need to be interested in all the issues raised. If there is no time or desire to continue the conversation, you can ask closed questions that can be easily answered with a short “Yes” or “No”: “Did you like the session?” or “Will you take part in the excursion tomorrow?”

If you want to switch to a new topic, however, you can pick up certain keywords and link them to a question or a comment – without interrupting the other. The conversation will gain a new dynamic and you may get to know another facet of your conversation partner. In May 2016, for example, I attended an event on “Professional Networks”. During the break, I got into conversation with Roger: an ordinary small talk at first, in which we did not find a common level. As the conversation was nearly over, Roger took one last try asking me: “Are you running or playing badminton?” Two days later we met for the first run together and shortly afterwards we played badminton, today we are still very good friends.

Suitable conversation topics

A good starting point for successful small talk is open-mindedness for your conversation partner. But which topics can you address and which questions are taboo? It depends on the situation, of course: For the job interview, questions such as “How was your journey?” and “Did you find us well?” are common questions. As an applicant, you can touch on topics such as the location of the company, sometimes with trivial questions and comments such as “You are optimally connected to public transport. Is this the original location of your company?” or “You have a nice location with the park next door.”

At conferences you may set other priorities. The weather, the last session and current professional and branch-specific developments are some of the options you can address. If approaching an exhibitor, you may want to talk about the exhibited products or services or even about related industry trends.

In your private network, more personal topics are obvious. Even if you are just getting to know your conversation partner, topics such as art and culture, sport, hobbies or your last holiday might be suitable, depending on the occasion: “Have you seen the new film?..”, “How well do you know Mr. Block?” or “I will soon be flying to Rome. Have you ever been to Italy?” These are questions with which you do not get too close to each other and at the same time provide a starting point for further discussion.

Taboo topics in small talk

By contrast, topics such as politics, religion, sex and disease are usually taboo. They are only suitable for small talk if, for example, you meet like-minded people in a (political) party, a church community or a medical association. Otherwise they are a clear no-go just like any confidential information.

As mentioned at the beginning, the goal of small talk is to establish a common, positive connection to your conversation partner. Extreme positions, blasphemies or fatalism are inappropriate: “We live in a terrible time: first the climate change, now the refugee crisis – I am pessimistic, so we will all perish”. Jokes at the expense of others and cynical remarks are also completely misplaced and would irritate your counterpart rather than develop into a constructive conversation with a positive mood.


Finish small talk

Of course it is also feasible to find no common level with your conversation partner at all. You have touched on many different topics, your conversation partner reacts very briefly, is not turned towards you and does not connect with you at all. Maybe today is not the right day for a suitable conversation or your interests simply do not fit together. Then you either land in a dead end, or you can end by saying: “Thanks for the conversation. All the best.” or “Please excuse me, I just see Mr. Pieper, with whom I would like to discuss some things”.

If you both like each other, small talk can become a stimulating conversation, or you can arrange to meet again. “Thank you for the nice conversation. I am sure we will see each other again” or “Here is my business card. I would be happy if we continued our conversation on occasion.” A professional speaker and coach herself, Dr. Sylvia Löhken recommends a written follow-up in her book “Leise Menschen – Starke Wirkung”. This way we can keep in touch with each other via XING, send an interesting article on one of the topics discussed and write a short message by letter, postcard or e-mail to thank for the conversation.


This post is also available in: German

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