Skillful Small Talk (I)

Have you ever run into the head of the company walking down the hall and didn't know what to say? We often lose opportunities, because we can't come up with the right words to start a conversation. This is where the skill of small talk comes to play: chatting without any specific business purpose in mind is key to making contacts with others, building trust, laying the groundwork for future deals, and winning new friends. 

How does it work? People start talking, notice things that they have in common, and then go on to discover subjects that really interest them. Small talk opens the door to what's important!


The higher your position in a company, the more you want to climb the career ladder, be accepted by others, and/or perceived as likeable, the more important it is for you to master the art of small talk.

But how do you begin a conversation? It's helpful to keep a selection of topics handy and select an appropriate topic based on the situation. Here are a couple of standard topics that are suitable for getting started:

  • Season or holidays: Use these to launch small talk and ask: Survive the holidays?" Where did you go on vacation? Got plans for next year?
  • Current topics: Did you see the price of gas went up again?
  • Sport: A lot of people like to talk about sports. Use this and ask: Are you looking forward to the Super Bowl? Hey, you ever do any sport?
  • Noticing conversation starters: What's that on your wall? 
  • Compliment (but only if you're serious!): That's a nice looking ____. Where'd you get it? [Avoid commenting on dress, hairstyles, etc. unless you are already very close to that person.]
  • Appreciative words about something that you have both just heard, seen or experienced, for example, at a conference, after a meeting. 
  • A specific question: "Can you tell me where, when, how?" I just saw .... What do you think about that?
  • Weather: The perfect topic for a brief conversation for many people. It's easy to make the leap to vacation, last weekend, or next weekend.

The topic you choose should be of (1) interest to everyone in the group and (2) positive. In addition, make sure (3) everyone gets to contribute. These standard topics ensure you're on safe ground. 

Of course, there are taboo subjects that you should avoid. These include:

  • politics, political views, and politicians
  • religion
  • family problems
  • money and assets
  • sex or intimate matters
  • professional topics associated with work (not suitable for small talk)
  • talking about another's incompetence
  • your own weaknesses 
  • health
  • and any other personal or negative topics

If you work in a multi-cultural setting or overseas, find out what is considered inappropriate in that culture/country.

The first commandment is: Never bore the others in your group! Most listeners want to chill while chatting and are looking to be entertained, so the topic shouldn't be too dry. But don't start whining and don't talk about anything bad. Don't tell lengthy stories about your favorite topic. It's not necessary nor desirable to go into depth while chatting. In addition, you should avoid showing off your expertise and scaring others off. 

Here the most common conversation killers:

  • People who don't know when to stop and chatterboxes: Others also want to participate!
  • Advice: Where empathy is wanted, giving advice can be seen as criticism!
  • Trying to win the argument: Small talk is meant to be a light diversion, not a battle to the death for your own position!
  • Boasting of expertise: You want to be seen as likeable, not full of yourself.
  • Accusations poison the air and should be handled with a conflict resolution process.
  • Sarcasm, irony, and cynicism can come across as hurtful. 
  • Bad language, foreign words, and jargon: either avoid, explain, or substitute intentionally.
  • Bad jokes: Show some class!

Ask yourself what kinds of topics have been well-received in your workplace in the past. Popular topics can include useful tips, small mishaps that show your human side, and funny, short anecdotes, of course. [Gossip is never a good idea, because it too rapidly devolves into bad-mouthing others.] Give insight into the interesting and surprising moments of life: this will make you more interesting and, even more important, you'll be remembered!

In the second part, I will elaborate on how to keep a conversation going and how to get your counterpart to respond to your requests. In addition, you'll learn a few interesting facts about body language.