Mastering Small Talk


On April 1, professional speaker, bestselling author, conversation expert, and communication guru, Debra Fine, spoke at the Denver Bar Association offices on the art of small talk. While Fine’s presentation was titled “Small talk…It’s No Joke!” the former engineer kept the mood light with plenty of self-deprecating humor and Oprah jokes.

Fine’s overarching principals are: (1) take the risk to meet someone new; and (2) get out of the office to meet people (even co-workers). Here are some helpful strategies on how to meet people, break the ice, and gracefully exit the conversation.

Arrive to an event early, look for someone standing alone, and introduce yourself. After the introduction, take a moment to commit the other person’s name to memory. Use the person’s name in conversation, repeat the name, and get a business card. Repeating their name a few times may be necessary if the person has a difficult name to pronounce. Don’t be afraid to ask for a reminder. It is far less embarrassing than calling everyone Chief or Pal. It also helps to introduce the person you just met, by name, to others.

After introductions, you need to break the ice. One of the easiest ways to do this is to think of two or three topics of conversation before you arrive at the event that you can discuss with everyone. Questions related to the occasion and location are the easiest topics of initial conversation. “What is your connection to this event?” “What got you involved in this event?” “What keeps you busy outside of work?” Fine also recommended setting a personal goal for how many introductions to make before standing in the corner or drinking at the bar alone. Fine’s unofficial suggestion was two to five.

The next potential hurdle is avoiding questions that prompt one-word answers. The vast majority of the time, questions like “How are you?” “How is work?” and “How is the deal going?” are not actually requesting any type of detailed answer. These types of questions simply mean “Hello” and the other person responds with “Good” to acknowledge the question. Fine recommends asking a follow up question to show sincerity. A follow-up work question could be, “What has been the most interesting deal you have worked on this year?” or “What has surprised you the most about your job?”

Remember that a conversation requires two people and you also need to avoid one-word answers. Limit initial responses to one sentence in case the person did not actually want an answer, but still give them the ability to continue the conversation. If the new acquaintance asks how your weekend was, give him or her details like “I went to a Rockies’ game” instead of saying your weekend was good. Try to come up with something that provides an opportunity for expanded conversation. The goal here is to demonstrate that you are human. If the other person has similar interests, conversation should start easily. If not, ask what the other person did.He or she may have done something interesting and was trying to steer the discussion in that direction.

Another important part of a conversation is actually listening to what the other person is saying. Visual and verbal listening cues include eye contact, nodding your head and saying “umm hmmm” to show interest. Develop the conversation by asking the person things like “What was that like for you?” and respond positively to what they say. Examples are, “How interesting” and “What an accomplishment.”

A cautionary word of advice from Fine on conversation topics is that you should not assume anything. This can be especially important with acquaintances you do not know well. It is better to ask someone generally how work or family have been since last speaking instead of specifically mentioning an employer or spouse by name. If something particularly embarrassing or tragic happened, the other person can decide how much information to share.

Finally, it is time to exit the conversation gracefully. Fine suggests acknowledging something you learned or discussed with the person, and then ask a final question. For example, you could say, “Sam, it was great to hear about X, but I need to leave and spend time with other attendees or get more coffee. Tell me the highlight of X / What you would have done if you didn’t devote so much time to Y / What your summer plans are.” Then, whatever you said you needed to do, make sure that is the first thing you actually do.

Remember, small talk isn’t just about the weather, it is a way to build relationships, make friends, succeed in an interview, develop business, and leave a positive impression on clients and colleagues.


By Dean C. Hirt, an attorney with Fairfield and Woods. His practice focuses on water rights, water quality, environmental and tax law.