The Fine Art of Small Talk

A review by Andrew Forward, of Debra Fine's book on the confidently talking to others in casual settings

You do not know anyone at the event except the host, and you always try hard not to look lost. Every day, we have casual conversation about 12 times a day. You can acquire conversation skills to talk with confidence and:

Small talk is required before you can get to any sort of real conversation. Icebreakers clear the way for more intimiate talk.

Great small-talkers are experts at making others fell included, valued and comfortable. This helps further business relationships, closing deals, opening doors to romance and making friends.

With practice, you can do it too!

Take the risk, assume the burden of coming up with topics, remembering names and introducing yourself to others. Relieve awkward moments and fill pregnant pauses. If others are comfortable in your precence, they will feel good about doing business or socializing with you.

Appreciate small talk and recognize its value, then you will be more inclined to acquire this new skill.

Unlearn what you know about small-talk

As a kid you were taught: good things to those who wait, silence is golden, wait to be introduced, don't talk to strangers. As a child, this ensured your safety and taught you manners. As adults, your safety is not at stake with every person we meet.

We must now teach ourselves that in safe situations to make it a point to talk to and engage strangers, and acquaintances. This will bring new dimensions to your life, good friends, long term clients, etc.

Introduce Yourself. "Hello, my name is Andrew, it is nice to meet you." Find an approachable person and start a conversation.

Silence is impolite. Shyness can be mistaken for arrogance - their visible traits are the same.

Good things to those that go get them. Initiative, interesting people don't just introduce themselves (unless they have read this book, and find you approachable).

Monologue's are a chore, one word answers do not count as conversation. You must become invested in the conversation, actively help others fell comfortable. "What do you do for a living?", is lame or old.

Business Ice Breakers Social Ice Breakers
  • What is a typical day?
  • What get you started in ...?
  • What got you interested in ...?
  • What do you enjoy most about your profession?
  • What do you see as coming trends?
  • What one thing would you do if you know you could not fail
  • What was your best job (worst job)?
  • What do you think of movie (restaurant / party)?
  • Tell me about your best vacation.
  • If you could replay any moment, what would it be?
  • What one thing would you really like to own, why?
  • What is the perfect age?
  • Tell my why you are named Andrew.
  • What is the best surprise you have received?
  • What is your most memorable meal?
  • Tell me about your family.
  • Who was the scariest person you have ever met?
  • Tell me something that most people would never guess about you.

Small talk is not about an agenda, it is a way to acknowledge a person as being real and there. And, do not forget that "yes, you can start a conversation". By doing so, you get to choose your conversation partner.

Be the first to smile at someone (they will smile back), make eye contact. Practice saying 'hi' to random people at the mall or in the grocery store. Make it a point of learning other people's name.

To learn someone's name you can (1) reply "Nice to meet you, Andrew", (2) immediately use it in the conversation, over and over "So, Roy, how are you going to spend all of your vacation days?", (3) when starting a conversation do not think about your reply, just focus on the name, (4) Confess if you forget - right away, (5) Never fake that you know the person's name, "Please remind me of your name", (6) You no longer have to avoid people because you forget their name (you are confident enough to admit your short-coming) - and you appear rude if you avoid someone, (7) Always give up your name, just in case your conversation partner has forgotton yours (and is too shy to ask).

Make a point of looking around when you first enter a room - size it up and determine your approach. When starting a conversation, do you dangling statements. Instead of just asking "What a beautiful day.", to which most people reply "Yes", "Indeed", or "Uh-hum", add a follow-up question like "What is your favourite season.". For conversations, it is the effort that counts - the more interest you show in me, the more interesting you become to me (vain but true).

You goal is to get your partner to talk about him/herself. Ask open ended questions with words like Describe, Tell me, How did and What was the most/least. And, do not forget about follow-up. "How was your day today", with "What made it so great","How did you celebrate", "Tell me about it".

Avoid simple answer questions in favour of open ended description ones.

What do you do for a living? Tell me about your work.
Do you have kids? Tell me about your family.
How was your weekend? What was the best part of your weekend?

Great conversation hinges on talking and listening. Listening is seen not just heard - so be aware of your facial expressions and head nods. Do not look around - stay focussed. Nod, this reinforces you are following along.

Positive MessageNegative Message
Lean forward Point
Eye contact Covering mouth
Open arms and body Rubbing body parts
Relax body posture Fiddle
Force partner to talk Making tapping sounds
Nod and smile Cross arms

Too much listening and not enough veralizing can halt a conversation.

Business Function
  • How did you get started in this business?
  • What do you enjoy most about it?
  • What are the coming trends in your field?
  • What advice do you have for new members
  • what one thing would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?

Paraphrasing the speaker clarifies that you understood and it helps the speaker recognize when you mis-understood. People naturally calm down when they realize they have been understood - before solving a problem, let the person know that you heared (and understood) them.

When listenting you should...

  1. What to listen
  2. Give verabl and visual cues
  3. Whole body listening (ears, eyes, heart)
  4. Take notes (for retention)
  5. Listen now, report later (don't interupt)
  6. Control internal and external distractions

Try preparing before your next event. Think about TV, films or books that you have read. Technology you have used, recommend a bank or stock broker.

Be weary with old acquitances, a lot can change:

Safe QuestionsDangerous Questions
Bring me up to date with your familyHow's your husband
What is new with work latelyHow's your job at Inco.
What has changed in your life since we last metHow is little Angie doing at Harvard
How has your year been
What is new with your family

Prepare for a conversation like you would an interview, as both the interviewer and the interviewee. Consider all relevant material (good questions to ask, good ancedotes to tell). The worst time to prepare is when you are face to face with a stranger. Some great simple ice breakers are:

Don't forget to prepare answers to typical questions like, "what describes you best", "personal motto", "hereos you admire", "what did people in high school think you were like", "what do you wish you could stop doing".

Do not forget about etiquette. Disclose comfortable, uncontroversial information about yourself. Provide easy, positive, bright information. Avoid gossip, personal misfortunes, cost of things and your health.

Start a conversation with a compliment

Nice hair, where did you get it done?, and then elaborate on why you like it. You can also look at behaviour.

Be assertive.

Assertive (Good)Passive (Okay)
Please have the report ready by TuesdayWhen will the report be ready?
I believe you can find that BayshoreI would hate to direct you wrong.
I am sorry to interruptCan I interrupt you
I'll be glad to check with SophiaI'll have to ask someone
I had a great timeI'll be honest, ...
Please spell that.Can you spell that.
I can be there by 3pmI cannot meet this morning
I would be glad to...I would have to...
What is your nameMay I ask your name

Crimes and Misdemeanors

FBI Agent

The conversation feels more like an interrogation than a conversation. You fire question about question, instead of asking open ended questions.


You boast, embellish and brag. To avoid this, bring the conversation back to general topics like current events.

The One-Upper

You always top someone else's story. You need to acknowledge the story instead of simply saying, "I know, one time for me ...".


Go into too much detail, and reveal too much. Try to talk less than 5 minutes at a time. If you are talking with a monopolizer, give them a white flag prior to just leaving, along the lines of "Just to let you know, I must take a call in about 5 minutes"


You think you know what the other person is going to say, so stop wasting my time and I will simply answer to what I know is about to be said. Interruptions are only excusable when you need to exit immediately, stop a monopolizer, or feel uncomforatable with the conversation topic.

Poor Sport

Changes open ended questions into closed ones.