The British have got a reputation for talking about the weather. I’m no exception, but I’m very happy to talk about other topics, too. 😉
So if chatting about the weather doesn’t appeal to you, that’s still no reason to avoid small talk. You’re free to bring up other subjects. And in case you’re unsure what the alternatives are, here are four tips for finding a topic.
1. Listen for clues in what the other person tells you
Often when you’re talking to someone they’ll say something which may seem like an aside, but actually contains an invitation to ask for more details, to get to know them better. Be sure to take up this opportunity by asking a question or two.
Let me give you an example. Imagine you’re talking to a colleague on the phone and she says I won’t be in the office next Thursday because it’s my daughter’s birthday. This is the perfect opening for small talk. For example, you can ask How old will she be? Is she having a party? Is she your only child? But be careful not just to fire off questions! Instead share a little information about your own family, talk about your plans for a day off soon or tell her what you’re doing next week.
2. Pay attention to your environment
When you arrive at a business partner’s office there are plenty of things in the physical environment to talk about if you keep your eyes open: you can comment on the building, his office, the view from his office window, for instance. Or ask questions about all of these.
The same applies to the cultural environment. If you’re abroad, ask about things you’ve noticed in that country which have puzzled you (I’m not quite sure what it means when people shake their heads from side to side. Can you help me out here?). And comment on aspects which are very different to what you are used to (One thing I really like here is that the pace of life is less hurried.). Always be sure that you sound open and interested, never judgemental or superior.
3. Keep up with current events – business news, sports, arts
Politics is a subject best avoided, but there are plenty of other news items you can talk about.
So keep up with what’s going on in the world, with big sporting or cultural events. Then introduce the topic casually (Have you heard about …? I see ABC Ltd are opening a new plant in China. Are you following the rugby world cup? Have you seen the latest James Bond film?) and see if your small talk partner is interested in it. Don’t worry if they’re not, you’ve made a start and they’ll probably move the conversation on to another topic.
If you have the chance to follow the local news when you’re visiting a foreign business partner so much the better. This shows that you’re interested in what’s going on in that country and means that you can ask questions to find out more. Your business partner is likely to be very happy to explain.
4. Prepare an interesting or funny anecdote in advance
You can take the pressure off yourself by preparing. So before the next evening you’ll be spending with visitors, think of an interesting, strange or funny thing that has happened to you recently and which you could share.
Pay some thought to how you can tell the story in an entertaining way. Keep it reasonably short and to the point. Look up any vocabulary you’ll need. Practise the story a few of times, so that you feel confident and can present your anecdote fluently. And then if there’s a lull in the conversation when you’re chatting to a colleague or business partner tell your story: I’ll tell you what happened to me recently …
So – just four ideas for finding a topic for small talk. Now it’s up to you to take the initiative whenever an opportunity presents itself. Remember: practice makes perfect!