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How to make small talk in person

Hi again and welcome back to The Art of Business English. This is the second part in our mini-series on “small talk”. If you missed part one last week, then you can check it out here. Last week we looked at how you can make small talk on the phone, this week we are going to look at making small talk in person.

Today, we will be covering the following, some tips on small talk, how to use the Present Perfect tense to generate questions with interrogative pronouns. How you can “break the ice” and start a conversation with someone you don’t know, this will cover starting a conversation and developing rapport. Following that, we will look at some language for making small talk with someone you already know. Finally, we will wrap things up with some ideas on how to exit a conversation gracefully.

Small talk tips

Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed. Basically, it is a polite conversation about unimportant things.

Before you start, always do your research. It's not easy to do but it's easy to forget. Even if it's a minute thinking of the person and all you know about them, what they know and who they know.

First, ask open-ended questions. Most people enjoy talking about themselves -- not only are we our favorite subjects, but it’s also easier to discuss yourself than something you know little about.

Here's a tip. Not related to English. Put away your phone. We tend to pull out our phones when we’re feeling uncomfortable or awkward in social situations. Standing in the corner or sitting alone and using our phone to distract or comfort us. Try being observant and feeling comfortable being alone with yourself.

Let's talk about topics. Here's a cheat sheet.

Some of the most common small talk topics include:


Logically, unless you know the person and his or her reaction to the topic, then stay away from religion, politics, family and relationships, money and jokes or sarcasm.

Using the Present Perfect in small talk

The Present Perfect tense in English is a great tense to use when you need to ask questions to generate discussion. The Present Perfect tense is very useful for bringing past events into the present, especially when you don’t know when those events actually happened. I like to say that it is like fishing for information in the past. You know the fish are there, just not exactly where.

To form the Present Perfect we use a subject, plus the auxiliary verb have or has and then a verb in the Past Participle form. When we use it in a question, the auxiliary verb comes before the subject. Let me show you.

“Have you been to this hotel before?”
“Have you worked for this company long?”

Now, as we mentioned last week, the above examples are closed questions. If we want to generate better discussion, it is better to ask open questions. We can do this by using an interrogative pronoun. Let’s take a look.

“How long have you worked in this role?”
“What have you planned for the summer holidays?”

As you can see, these open questions are fishing for information and the person who answers them must provide more than just a “yes” or “no” answer.

Watch the episode here

Breaking the ice

This can be the most difficult part of any conversation. How do you start a conversation at an event or trade fair or whatever, when you have never actually met a person?

Lucky, we have some quick and easy one-line phrases that you can use to break the ice and get someone talking.

Take a look at these examples:

Is anyone sitting here? / Do you mind if I sit here?
No. Go ahead. Take a seat.

It´s hot in here, isn´t it?
Yes, I know, would you like me to open the window?

Have you been waiting for a long time?
About ten minutes. The bus should be here soon.

Do you know anyone here?
No. This is my first class here.

You really don’t need much to break the ice with someone, most people are polite, especially at events or social gathering where the norm is to socialize and mingle

Making small talk with someone you don’t know or have only just met

Sometimes you may find yourself in a meeting room with some guests and your boss is late, so hey, you are the one stuck entertaining the guests and making them feel welcome. It is your job as the face of the company to make sure everyone is comfortable. This is a typical situation where small talk in business is critical.

Remember, doing your research or thinking about it beforehand helps a lot. Secondly, NO PHONES, keep that thing away. You should engage and use your emotional intelligence.

Here's 8 openers:

There are several phrases you can use to begin and keep a small talk conversation going. For instance:

Do you like _____?
Have you seen/heard _____?
What did you think of _____?
I really enjoyed _____.
I've heard good things about _____.
Have you ever been to _____?
I thought that _____ was _____.
Who/what is your favorite _____?

Some examples of small talk questions that you can use to make people feel welcome are:

“So, is this your first-time visiting Barcelona?”
“What’s your industry like right now?”
“As an expert in [field], I’d love to hear your thoughts on [event, announcement, major change].”
“How was your flight over here?”
“So, where are you staying?”
“How many days are you in town for?”
“Can I offer you some recommendations on places to eat?”
“Are you interested in football; I’m sure I could arrange tickets to see Barça if you would be interested?”

The important thing to remember here is to listen to the follow up information. The breath of life for any conversation is a good listener and someone who knows how to ask those really insightful, yet tactful questions.

So, let me model that for you.

“So, is this your first time in Barcelona?”
“Oh, it is? That is great, I would love to show you around if you have time. How many days are you in town for?”
“Perfect, why don’t I arrange some Barça tickets for the match on Saturday, then I can show you a wonderful place to grab a meal.”
“OK, how about I pick you up on Saturday at 6?”

Here are some more questions for maintaining a conversation:

“Did you have a good weekend?”
“What did you do last night?”
“How has your week been?”
“What do you think of the hotel?”
“How are you finding the company so far?” 

Making small talk with a colleague or an acquaintance

Catching up with old friends, colleagues r acquaintances can be a little easier than making small talk with someone you don’t know. However, it is still important to do it gracefully and with a really genuine interesting in seeing how that person is going.

Let’s take a look at some expressions you can use when making small talk with people you know in person.

“How’s life treating you?”
“How’s things been with you lately?”
“How’s the wife/husband and kids?”
“How’s that project you have been working on going?”
“What’s news with you?”
“What’s been going on with you?”
“What have you been up to as of late?”

Just like with making small talk with someone you don’t know, it is incredibly important, maybe even more important to be listening for detail. You want to genuinely respond with interest to what the person says. So, you need to listen for the key words and then use them to generate your next questions. For example,

“How’s life treating you?”
“Not bad, I’ve just started a new position in the company.”
“Wow, that is great, what position have you taken on?”

So, by listening, we can easily keep that conversation going and show someone that we are interested.

How to leave conversation

Finally, everyone who engages in small talk should also have the skills to know when it is time to move on and bring things to a close. This is a very important part of small talk... the exit

Here are potential exit lines: 3 quick options

“Can’t wait to hear how [initiative, project, personal decision] goes! Let’s catch up at the next [work party, conference, meeting, get-together].”

“I see my [friend, co-worker, client] over there and should probably go say hi. Want to exchange contact info?”

“Well, glad we got the chance to connect over [topic]. I don’t want to dominate your [morning, afternoon, night] -- I’m going to [check out the snacks, say hello to someone, take a walk around the venue, etc.]”

“Well, it’s been great catching up Mark, I really must head off, but let’s catch up sometime.”

Final thoughts

To sum up, mastering small talk is a great skill set to add to your other business communication skills areas and can lead to new relationships and business opportunities. As I am sure you will agree, you now have the knowledge and vocabulary to start making conversation anywhere.

If you are serious about improving your socializing skills and want to become better at making small talk, engaging people in conversation and keeping a conversation going, then you will not want to miss my online course “How to engage people in conversation.” This short course is packed full all the steps, tips and language you need to become better at socializing. Enroll now and use the code MAKESMALLTALK to get 50% of my signature course.

If you liked this episode or have any questions then please feel free to leave us a comment below. Remember to subscribe over at iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Play. Once again, thanks for joining us on The Art of Business English, and we will see you next week.

See you all then.

How to Engage People in Conversation

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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

Andrew Ambrosius

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