Going to a party full of people you don’t know; attending a networking event and striking up a conversation with total strangers—depending on your personality, these might be moments that either get you super excited or bring out all your dread.
If the latter sounds like you, it might be because you—to use a slightly dramatic phrase you’ve probably said before—hate small talk. You can get better at it, though! It’s worth the effort because knowing how to make small talk matters a ton in networking and business. Below, learn how to get better at small talk.
- What is small talk?
- Benefits of small talk
- How to make small talk
- 4 small talk topics to use
- How to use small talk at work
- Small talk topics to avoid
- Become small talk savvy with Fellow
What is small talk?
Small talk is the semi-formal, surface-level conversations you have with people you’ve just met or don’t know well. You might first think of parties when small talk comes to mind, but it’s a big part of networking and business, too.
During small talk, you’ll chat about low-stakes, uncontroversial topics and avoid veering into deeper, more potentially challenging or contentious territory. Think of it as a meeting introduction but in a good old-fashioned one-on-one conversation.
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Benefits of small talk
Here’s why small talk matters in networking and business settings whether you’re looking for new opportunities, collaborations, partnerships, or all of the above.
- Finding common ground and shared interests
- Working toward more profound conversations
- Getting better at active listening
Finding common ground and shared interests
The whole point of small talk is to find top-level shared interests and start building a genuine connection. Think about it like this: You wouldn’t just walk into a party and start talking to someone about your passions, right? The same goes for professional settings.
Working toward more profound conversations
Small talk in business helps you find the middle part of your Venn diagram with another person and gradually build toward talking about it. For example, maybe you mention that you’re a junior software developer and someone with whom you’re networking tells you they’re a dev team manager. Your shared software background can turn into a big conversation about this person’s early days in software and how you could potentially work together.
Getting better at active listening
In the workplace, actively listening to your fellow team members leads to stronger working relationships and, from there, increased productivity and efficiency. Active listening is a super important soft skill, and you’ll get better at it as you master small talk. After all, you need to pay undivided attention to someone new to successfully find common ground via surface-level topics—and that’s the heart of active listening.
How to make small talk
Here are the three core parts of great small talk—they’re easier than you might think!
- Always ask broad, open-ended questions
- Pay full attention
- Find a way to be enthusiastic, and show it
1Always ask broad, open-ended questions
An open-ended question is one that requires more than a “yes” or “no” to answer—one-word answers do nothing to move a conversation forward. Good open-ended questions for small talk are about topics broad enough that anyone can answer them. Most questions that work as team-building icebreaker questions are great for small talk too, so start with these.
Ask, for example, about the person’s favorite travel destination to date instead of whether they’ve been to a certain location. If they’re not interested in the location you name, they’ll have little to talk about and might want to leave the conversation. Chances are, though, that they’ve traveled somewhere interesting at some point and can talk about that.
2Pay full attention
In your personal life, if you’re at a party and you’re struggling to connect, you can go into the corner and use your phone. It doesn’t quite work that way in professional settings. Keep your phone and other devices away and out of reach, and focus fully on the conversation in front of you.
When you talk to someone while you’re using a device, you show that you’re not interested in them. Additionally, even if you’re between conversations, using your device makes people unlikely to come up to you. As you’re catching up on texts between professional chats, you might accidentally signal to someone valuable that you’re unavailable. That’s a missed professional connection you could’ve made.
3Find a way to be enthusiastic, and show it
No, you don’t need to be a total firecracker to be great at networking. You do, though, need to leave people with no questions as to whether you’re genuinely interested in them. That often starts with convincing yourself first that you’re about to have a great time networking. Bring this inner enthusiasm into your body language and how you speak, and other people might connect with you more easily. Better yet, you might have an easier time connecting with them.
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4 small talk topics to use
If your biggest barrier to great small talk is simply not knowing what to say, here are some small talk topics you can ask questions about.
Unusual (but still appropriate) questions about work can really get people going. Try the following instead of the usual “Do you like your job?”:
- What’s your favorite part of your current job?
- What soft skills do you use every day at work? What about hard skills?
- What has surprised you about your job, and how do you feel about this?
- I work with clients in your field who often say that [something your clients often say]. How much does this line up with your experience?
2Travel and local activities
Talking about destinations is a great icebreaker, and this doesn’t have to be limited to trips and vacations; you can also ask for local recommendations! Some great small talk questions about travel include:
- What is your favorite place you’ve visited so far?
- What’s your best travel story?
- What’s the best food you’ve tried for the first time while you were traveling?
- What places or activities would you recommend to someone visiting our area?
3Hobbies and crafts
Even if you love your work, it probably doesn’t take up every hour of your life. You presumably have hobbies or crafts you enjoy too—and so do other professionals. Here are some small talk example questions to ask about passion projects.
- What do you like to do in your free time outside of work?
- What hobbies or crafts do you want to try in the future?
- What arts or crafts classes have you taken?
- Which of your crafts or hobbies do you tell people to try most often?
4Entertainment and pop culture
Chances are that the person you’re chatting with keeps up with pop culture, enjoys TV or movies, reads books, or otherwise entertains themself. Ask about this—namely:
- What TV shows are you watching right now?
- What books have you read recently?
- What podcasts would you recommend for getting through my work commute?
- What was the last concert you went to?
How to use small talk at work
Small talk can be just as useful in your office (or with your remote team) as in networking spaces. Here’s how to make small talk within your team.
- Be approachable and casual
- Remember what you talked about, and refer back to it next time
- Respond to people thoughtfully
- Always ask questions
1Be approachable and casual
For some, it can be a bit nerve-wracking to open up to coworkers. Changing your facial expression and body language to show that you’re open and approachable can help break down these barriers.
An open posture with uncrossed arms is a good start. So too is continuing to look right at anyone with whom you’re speaking and angling your body toward them. You’ll create an easygoing environment for a team member’s first one-on-one meeting and every catch-up meeting thereafter.
2Remember what you talked about, and refer back to it next time
Maybe during that first one-on-one, you and your new direct report talked about how much you both love Survivor. During your next catch-up meeting, you can ask what your direct report thought of the most recent Survivor episode. Simply remembering what someone likes and continuing to make small talk about it can build meaningful relationships.
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3Respond to people thoughtfully
Some things that people say deserve a gentle nod to show that you’re listening and that you understand. At other times, you can share your own similar story. Even a good laugh can have its place—your goal is simply to make the other person feel seen and heard. Respond how you would with a friend, but in a professional and appropriate way, and you’ll likely build just the right bond.
4Always ask questions
Have you noticed how often meetings begin with someone asking “How are you?” That’s because asking questions—even surface-level ones—is important for making people feel at ease. Continue asking small talk questions no matter how well you’ve gotten to know the other person, and you’ll keep building bonds.
Small talk topics to avoid
Small talk is superficial by design, so steer clear of these three topics. (You don’t want to be the person who talks too much about the wrong things!)
Asking someone whether they’re dating, in a relationship, or married is strictly off-limits. Of course, the person you’re chatting with might say “my partner” or something similar. However, that information is for them to volunteer instead of you prying for it. Don’t dwell on this if it comes up—keep the conversation going naturally.
2Family and kids
Just as you shouldn’t dig into someone’s romantic life, you should respect their privacy about their family. On top of that, work settings often become one of the very few places where stressed parents can get a break from their kids. Bringing up their family life in professional spaces might remind them of their current stress and shift their mood. This, of course, can change the course and tone of your conversation.
3Where they’re from
Even if you ask this question with pure intentions, it can come off as a microaggression. Namely, immigrants and people of color hear “Where are you from?”—and its sinister follow-up, “No, but where are you from?”—far too often. These questions can make you seem like you don’t think the person belongs where you are, even if you’re asking in earnest. You can bring plenty of other small talk topics to the table instead.
Become small talk savvy with Fellow
Within your workplace, you can use small talk as the foundation of so much more using Fellow. If you’re stuck on how to make small talk at the beginning of the meeting, use Fellow’s AI meeting agendas to instantly build recommendations on talking points, and customize the tone to “casual” for more tailored options.
You and your direct reports can add what you learn about each other through small talk to your meeting notes or private notes. Having this record makes it easy to ask more about these topics the next time you meet and keep building great work relationships. For everything from one-on-ones to big team-building sessions, you can use Fellow’s various templates to truly bring your team together!