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Small-Talk Tips for Reserved Individuals

Avoid being a wallflower and missing out on networking opportunities.

Not everyone has the gift of gab, but conversation skills can be learned. Think of conversation as a ladder. To get to the top of the ladder, you start at the bottom. Small talk is the first few rungs of the ladder and a necessary step toward moving into deeper conversation.

Though many are reluctant to engage to small talk, it is an important aspect of networking and in making a good first impression. The following tips will make small talk, if not totally enjoyable, at least productive.

The Eyes Have It

Practice the art of looking directly at the person to whom you are speaking. Few things are more unsettling than chatting with someone who is looking around the room for someone more interesting or important to talk to. That said, if the person you are talking to is looking elsewhere, it's time to make your exit.

Your Exit Line

Some people worry that if they start a conversation with someone, they won't be able to gracefully excuse themselves. Have a simple exit line prepared: "I see a colleague I need to chat with." "I need to call to check in with my kids/spouse/coworker." When in doubt, try the old standbys: "I need to refresh my drink" or "Pardon me, I need to find the restroom."

Smile...and Breathe

A simple smile puts both you and the person you are speaking with at ease. Keep your body language relaxed (no crossed arms) and remember to breathe. Acting confident and composed even when you're not will put the other person at ease.

Find Common Ground

We tend to be attracted to those we have the most in common with. When making small talk, ask how they know the host or if this is their first time at this event. Conversation starters don't have to be witty to get the conversation flowing. Discuss the event itself: the speaker, the food, or the general atmosphere. And although it's dismissed as banal, the weather is always a sure-fire way to establish common ground. (If you don't bring it up, someone else probably will.)

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Prepare a few open-ended questions that require more than a simple "yes" or "no" answer. Ask for someone"s opinion on the venue or what projects they're working on. Current events are also good ice breakers (just steer clear of controversial topics).


Don't wait for the most important networking conference of the year to try out your new conversational skills. Practice in low-risk circumstances. Engage in small talk with your waitress or the salesperson at the deli counter. Attend low-stress events just to hone your skills and test out some introductory lines. You may even find that, over time, you enjoy starting the conversation.


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