Dazzle Any Gathering with These 14 Savvy Small-Talk Tips

How to be a better conversationalist.

"The world is more talkative, in many ways, than it's ever been," writes Megan Garber in The Atlantic. "The problem… is that all of this talk can come at the expense of the art of conversation."

She makes a great point: in today's hyper-connected world, we're actually chatting IRL less and less. And this isn't just some old-fashioned, grandmotherly gripe: According to the pollsters at Gallup, Millennials vastly prefer texting to talking as the primary form of communication—a trend that shows no sign of slowing. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 51 percent of teens would rather chat with someone digitally then meet face-to-face. (The kicker? That poll's from 2010. Yeah—that's pre-Snapchat.)

It's a shame, really. Setting aside the fact that interpersonal connections are central to your happiness, your confidence, and your sense of self, your most basic skill`s as a conversationalist are crucial to your relationships and your career. After all, if 80 percent of success is merely showing up—as Woody Allen observed—the other 20 percent is then having the ability to put people at ease, make people laugh, and generally make people want to be around you.

That's why we've taken this time to help you brush up on your face-to-face small-talk skills. So follow these 15 tips—and don't forget to one-day send us a postcard from your corner office. And for more stellar communication advice, here are the 13 Sexiest Things You Can Ever Say.

DO: Your homework.

conversationalist people talking over coffee

It's so easy to go into a social situation armed with one thought: "I'll just be myself." But the truth is that you'd be better off being the version of yourself who did his or her due diligence and came prepped with topics to discuss—no matter how informal the gathering. Is your partner's father a doctor? Scan the front pages for healthcare news. Did your boss just get back from vacation in South Africa? Be prepared to ask him about rhinoceros poaching. Is the new couple at your dinner party comprised of artists? Come bearing an awkward-silence breaker or two, such as, "How would you envision your career if you weren't making art?"
"The big reason people default to something as innocuous as the weather is because that haven't thought of anything else," says Jane Scudder, a certified life, leadership, and career coach, and a professor at Loyola University Chicago's business school. So ask yourself what's really on your mind—it's surely more scintillating than the weather. And yes, it's crucial to prepare.

DON'T: Be obvious about it.

writing on arm conversationalist

Of course, you don't want to seemed forced. Robotic phrases, like "I have come prepared with topics of conversation," are a no-go. And there's no need to practice your answers to potential questions—you risk sounding like a job interviewee. In short, "Don't can it," says Scudder. Conversation is about pace and flow, so roll with it, don't force it. If there's something you prepared to talk about it, but the conversation moves elsewhere, move on with it.

DO: Be present, with strong eye-contact.

dinner party conversationalist people talking

Yes, it's easier said than done. But the simplest trick to being more present in a conversation is to simply acknowledge that you may be a person who frequently, well, isn't present.
Scudder compares it to a lesson from a former high school teacher. "He asked us, 'Do you want to know how to read faster? Well, the secret to reading faster is to read faster,'" she says. "And then he just laughed at us. But the concept rings true: If you want to be more present, actively be more present. The first step is acknowledging that."

DON'T: Daydream.

man and woman conversationalist boring

The worst thing you can do is zone out. The temptation to check out for a second, pick up on when a person is going to stop talking, resume listening, and respond to those final few words is a very real one. Stop yourself from doing this.
But if you do zone out, don't fake it. "Don't be fearful of saying, 'Oh, I just got lost in a thing from work earlier today and totally zoned out. Sorry! Can you say that again?' " says Scudder. "This has better results than consciously zoning out and [pretending you heard everything.]"

DO: Ask lots of questions.

friends dinner conversationalist

It's basic human nature: People love talking about themselves. So, ask people questions. "There's a principle of coaching that I subscribe to, and it's really all about question-asking. Questions are the best way to engage in a conversation fully," says Scudder. "It's a proven way to extract meaningful conversation and thought out of individuals—and it's applicable to everyday conversations, as well." If it's a date, though, be sure to steer clear of the 20 Questions You Should Never Ask On a First Date.

DON'T: Go too far.

woman on phone conversationalist

If the conversation starts feeling like an interview, pull back, and let the other person engage you. If he or she doesn't, then volunteer a new topic. But whatever you do, don't answer questions with questions.
"It [shouldn't] become a Ron Swanson–type game," says Scudder, "where you're answering every question with a question." Ultimately, use questions to be curious and interested—not overly nosy.

DO: Pay your compliments.

friends dinner party conversationalist

Everyone likes being praised, so it's good to inject a moment of nicety into a conversation. "Authentic compliments, praising someone's intelligence, thoughts, how they handle themselves—those are all fair game," says Scudder.

DON'T: Make it weird.

make it creepy conversationalist

"Don't teeter into anything romantic or inappropriate or physical," says Scudder. "If you're on a date, that makes sense. But if you're in any capacity where you don't know where a friendship may go, steer clear of physical compliments."

DO: Read the room.

friends at dinner conversationalist laughing

"The first 60 seconds, 90 seconds of a conversation—think of that as a baseline," says Scudder. "If they start changing their attitude or their tone or their inflection [after that], pick up on those changes." Maybe it's a positive change: your fellow conversationalist suddenly appears more excited to engage, is laughing and smiling, or making consistent eye contact. But maybe it's a negative one: maybe their responses have grown curt, or they're consistently eyeing the room like they're looking for a familiar face.

DO: Engage in medium talk.

conversationalist medium talk

"Sometimes, people don't expect that they're going to have a really in-depth conversation until they're in the throes of it—or until it's already happened," says Scudder. These unexpected deep talks are what conversationalists dub "medium talk," and they are, more often than not, utter delights. "When you want to go deeper, when you want to get to that medium level, start asking about perspectives, thoughts, and feelings," says Scudder. To give a very basic example, follow a question like, "What movie did you see?," with, "How did you feel about that movie?"

DON'T: Engage in big talk.

conversation big talk friends at dinner

Treading the "medium talk" ground requires the dexterity to walk a fine line: You don't want to venture into conversation that's too deep right off the bat. It's all about being mindful of their baseline, says Scudder. If you feel yourself crossing a line, getting too real, crack a joke—maybe make fun of the fact you veered into "big talk" territory by simply asking about a movie, suggests Scudder. "You're not shutting the door," she says. "You're just indicating that's not 100 percent where you want the conversation to go—right now."

DO: Bring up politics.

friends at cafe laughing talking conversation

Especially over holidays and family gatherings, we're conditioned to never—ever—bring up politics. But Scudder says that notion is wrong. It's completely safe territory, as long as you approach it tactfully. So your question shouldn't be about someone's thoughts or views about a particular topic ("Especially in this political climate," warns Scudder), but instead should simply be: "How important are politics to you?"

DON'T: Try to convert anyone.

young man talking to old man conversation

Of course, unless you're gearing up for a conflict, don't try to persuade anyone to change their mind. Whether someone's held a view for four years or 40 years, you—a person whom they may have only recently met—are not going to be the one who changes their mind. Keep any political discussion light, airy, and above the fray. "In any personal dialogue, you don't ever want the other person to feel shot down," says Scudder.

DO: Show some teeth.

men smiling and laughing conversationalist

Hey, a warm smile brightens everyone's day.

And for more great advice, be sure to check out the 40 Things No Man Over 40 Should Ever Say.

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Ari Notis
Ari is an editor specializing in news and lifestyle. Read more
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