6 Tips To Master The Art Of Small Talk

A public speaking expert shares his top strategies for making quick and meaningful connections with others.

By Leslie Huang        19 October 2023

Making “small talk” might seem like a waste of time, but it can help you in a number of ways, for instance, it can widen your social network, strengthen your relationships with co-workers, and even improve your professional standing. 

“Think of small talk as a social lubricant, facilitating interaction between you and another person,” says Darren Tay, founder of Public Speaking Academy and the 2016 World Champion of Public Speaking. 

“Through small talk, you can gauge someone’s mood, learn about their interests, build rapport, establish commonalities, and solidify a business relationship or platonic friendship.” 

When making small talk with someone, there’s a lot you can converse about. For example, if you’re at a networking event, you can share what you both do for a living and even discuss the vibe of the venue. 

Here, Darren gives six pointers for succeeding at small talk.

1. Even introverts can do it

“It’s a common misconception that you have to have the gift of the gab to excel at anything related to communication,” says Darren. 

Even if you’re an introvert, you can excel in making small talk. 

Your demeanour is important – so try to smile and appear bubbly. Second, be willing to listen to the other person, and third, keep the conversation open and light-hearted. Don’t worry about not being super-articulate or eloquent – Darren says that such skills can be learnt and developed. 

Not all great conversationalists are charismatic or energetic, either – some tend to have quite mellow personalities, so it’s okay if you’re naturally laidback.

2. Think about how making small talk can help you

Interpersonal communication skills are important to have, particularly in the modern workplace. 

Knowing how to make small talk allows you deliver complex ideas in a coherent, concise and compelling manner, Darren points out.  

Here are a few techniques for a successful conversation: 

  • Create a conducive environment for the other party to feel safe enough to share more with you: Use open-ended questions such as “How did that make you feel?” instead of yes-no questions. The best questions are those that provide context for the other person to answer. 
  • Create a neutral and collaborative conversational setting: Allow for disagreement and opposing views. Instead of telling the other person, “No, you’re wrong”, reply with “I get what you’re saying, but at the same time, there’s another view…”
  • Create a lasting and “top-of-mind’ impression of yourself: When asked what you do for a living, for example, don’t just tell the other person your occupation. Frame yourself as a solutions provider by going into detail about your job. So you could say something like, “I help companies devise digital marketing solutions for their products and brand using both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ advertising such as sponsored ads and SEO respectively.”

The next time the other person requires digital marketing solutions, you’ll be at the top of their mind. 

3. Be sincere and authentic

“Making meaningful small talk is not about being patronising and agreeing with everything the other person says. Disagreements can be productive. When you disagree, do so with tact while keeping the conversation going, by saying something like, ‘I understand where you’re coming from because…’,” says Darren.

Then, listen carefully to your counterpart’s response. Don’t interrupt when they’re talking. Instead, wait for the right time to raise your disagreement.  

In this way, the conversation will come across as genuine and authentic, and both you and the other person will get something out of it.

4. Be a good listener

Knowing how to actively listen to what someone else is saying is a skill in itself. Darren says that being a good listener is about making the other person feel heard and not dominating the conversation. 

“Beyond taking in what they’re saying, you may want to give a summary of what’s being discussed (for example, ‘If I understand you correctly…’), to reassure them that you’re listening and to drive the conversation forward,” Darren explains. 

It’s also important to listen with intent. This means using the time to strategise your next response, making sure that your points are adding value to the dialogue and that they are relevant and necessary. 

5. Put the other person at ease

When making small talk, you want to create a safe and inviting environment for the other person to feel comfortable enough to open up to you, Darren says. 

“When asking them a question, for instance, you can put them at ease by giving them your opinion about the topic first. It’s also smart to share a personal anecdote that’s relevant to the topic – this shows authenticity and sincerity.  

“And, initiate the conversation by discussing a broad topic before going into specifics, so as not to put the other person on the spot. 

“To avoid seeming like you’re prying, use ‘buffer’ statements that are reassuring, such as, ‘No worries if you can’t share any details that might be sensitive…’ This allows the other person to leave out any information that they don’t want to share, without losing face.” 

6. Encourage the flow of conversation

Darren says that there are a few strategies you can employ to ensure that the dialogue keeps going. 

For starters, if you’re at a networking event and the other person seems shy or not too confident, and you don’t want them to walk away, keep the conversation clear and focused by not rambling on for too long. 

And because the other person may just need a safe environment before they feel encouraged enough to open up, ask them easy yes-no questions; then, once they feel comfortable, you can move on to deeper and open-ended questions. 

Additionally, remember to share anecdotes or personal stories. Everybody loves a good story, and these can really help flesh out the conversation. Stories also help create a more open and engaging atmosphere. After sharing your story, you may want to ask the other person if they’ve had the same experience before (or some other relevant question). 

Finally, don’t forget to monitor your body language, Darren adds. 

“Your hand gestures can make the difference between an energised conversation and a guarded one.”

An upright posture indicates that you’re confident and ready to engage in conversation; stretch your chest outwards and upwards, stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, put the weight of your body on the balls of your feet, and rest your hand on one leg or put both hands in your pockets.  

Second, make additional movements with your palms up and using wide hand motions. This is an “open” gesture that will help the other party feel valued. 

To convey sincerity and respect, pivot your entire body towards your conversation partner. 

“This tells them that you genuinely want to have a meaningful conversation with them and want to listen to their responses,” Darren says. 

“When you give someone, even the most reticent person, your undivided attention, they will want to be part of the dialogue with you.”

Take your public speaking and presentation skills to the next level by signing up for courses at Public Speaking Academy, with its curriculum designed by Public Speaking World Champion, Darren Tay. SAFRA members enjoy a 15% discount on courses. Find out more here at safra.sg/lifestyle/public-speaking-academy

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