Use Your Interests to Master Small Talk
May 30, 2016 (appeared on Medium.com)
On a daily basis, there are several to-dos that are part of our regular routine … Brush teeth. Take a shower. Go to work. Make small talk. Now, if that last one made your heart skip a beat, you’re not alone. Most people would rather run into traffic than be forced to fill empty gaps of conversation, but it’s an inevitable part of life that happens anywhere and everywhere: The grocery store. The office. Planes, trains and automobiles (or Ubers).
In same cases, it can be easier to make small talk when you know there’s a limited amount of time involved, like chatting with a bank teller. Other times, it can feel more awkward, especially in scenarios where you may feel pressure to impress someone (a job interview or while on a date) or may not know anyone who’s in attendance (a networking event).
The good news is that small talk doesn’t have to feel like a dreaded task if you learn how to incorporate your own interests into casual conversation. It can take a bit of practice, but with time, it’ll feel like second nature.
I’ve been mastering small talk for years using my personal interests in entertainment, food, and business (startups and entrepreneurs). I read several articles and blogs covering each topic daily, and that provides me with a constant assortment of stories and tidbits to share.
At first, these three categories may not seem like they have a lot in common, but I’ve found that they actually share some intersecting factors. Finding common ground amongst my own interests has allowed me to take that skill and find common ground with people I meet as well. For example: I’m a fan of Sarah Michelle Gellar (have been since her Buffy days). While she has spent the majority of her career acting, she recently co-founded a company called FoodStirs. Whether I’m attending a media event, an entrepreneur meetup, or a food panel, this one story works in all three scenarios of including an actress (entertainment) who became can entrepreneur (business) by launching a baked goods subscription box company (food).
So what are your interests? Music and concerts? Comic books? Exhibits and museums? No matter what peaks your curiosity, you can find ways to engage with others by making small talk feel less like a task. Even if you think you might not have anything in common, you can think of it as an opportunity to share something new with others. People feel better learning about something they didn’t know about before — it keeps us interesting! Also, when we learn something new, we have a tendency and desire to share it with others. This is most common online on platforms like Facebook, which recently noted that they continue to see a large percentage of users sharing news content often than personal posts on their newsfeeds.
There is one major rule to follow though when it comes to small talk — avoid controversial topics. Unless you’re actively participating in debates or dinner salons, do your best to avoid topics on on politics, religion, parenting styles, etc. It’s best to stick to chatter that’s light-hearted and informative. Doing so will help you navigate various interactions with a lot more ease.
Now with some general guidelines to follow, I wanted to share an overview of how I master small talk throughout my day using my interests in entertainment, food and business. So here are a few ways I do this, and you can, too:
– At Work: Coming into the office on Monday is the perfect opportunity to share some really intriguing stories that I came across over the weekend. The Style section of The New York Times is a surprising source of stories because it doesn’t just center on fashion — there are profiles, lifestyle and relationship articles, and more. The site allows you to read up to 10 free articles a month, but if you want to read more, you can get around this by Googling “NYT” and the title of the article you’re wanting to read. You’ll get a direct link and can read the story even if you’ve met the monthly quota.
– At a House Party: It’s good to keep things fun and light at parties (controversial topics mixed with alcohol never end well). Some good topics to stick to include fun facts (the musical Hamilton just scored the most nominations in Tonys history), new movies, and TV shows — heck some good celeb gossip can really kick-start a conversation! Also, who doesn’t love to chat about the latest viral video, especially if there’s a baby or cat involved.
– On a Date: A lot of times, dates (especially the first date) can feel like a job interview. “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?” I’ve even been asked, “What can you bring to a relationship?” This should be more of a time to enjoy yourself and have a lot of laughs. Now, while it’s ok to show a viral video when attending a party, I encourage you not to do this on a date. You’ll want to put your phone away so you can really focus on the conversation.
– At Networking Events: These are a great time to bring up books that you’re currently reading. I attend a lot of entrepreneurial meetups, and as a group of people looking for advice and guidance on starting businesses, we’re voracious readers. If I bring up a book that someone is currently reading, we now have a common talking point. If they’re not familiar with a book I’m talking about, they now have one to add to their reading list, and they likely have some book suggestions for me, too. So it’s a win-win! When you’re networking with people in your industry, it’s good to have a list of publications, popular industry-related books, and influencers that you can reference. It’ll immediately give you some common ground during your interactions.
– A Group Dinner: There’s nothing quite like a group dinner setting: delicious food, flowing drinks, and depending on the invitee, either a table full of your friends, or a group of people you’ve never met. But you go into it knowing you all have one thing in common: the host. If it turns out to be a dinner of the latter, ideally a host will do introductions and include some tidbits about each guest and what they may have in common: careers, universities, hometowns, and more. Group dinners are a great time for entertaining anecdotes, so share fun items like talking about a recent exhibit opening and its crazy long lines, a podcast that you’re listening to at work or your latest binge-watching obsession.
Now is a great to time to start implementing these tips into daily small talk, especially as we’re currently heading into wedding season, one of the holy grail seasons of small talk. In fact, married couples make a huge effort to make it easier for their guests to overcome their small talk fears, usually by seating them at tables with people who have similar affiliations (classmates, family, coworkers) and many are giving their guests tools, like guesterly, ahead of time to provide them a rundown of who’s attending, along with photos and mini bios.
Not many people are natural born small talkers, but with time and some practice, you’ll feel like a pro in no time.
In the comments below, share:
What do you fear most about small talk?
What are your interests, and how do you plan to use them to navigate small talk scenarios?
As it appeared on Medium.com: