- Do a Little Homework: To keep your conversation timely and lively, Carducci suggests scanning newspaper headlines and movie and book reviews.
2. Greet People Appropriately
3. Remember Names of the persons with whom you are interacting.
4. Don’t Hold Back: Begin the conversation by giving the other person something to work with. But don’t put her to work.
5. Draw the Other Person Out
“People love to talk about themselves, so be a great listener,” says Cawley. Roberts concurs: “If we’re at an exhibition, I ask what their favorite painting was. If I’ve never met them before, I ask what they do professionally and what they enjoy recreationally.”
- Filippini says, “I’ll ask if they’ve seen a particular exhibit or play.” The questions don’t have to be that specific, adds Fine: “You can simply say, ‘Bring me up to date.’ ” Questions can also be utterly superficial―to begin with. “I always ask about someone’s shoes or jewelry,” says Fowler. “Both make statements about a person. I often ask what meaning a piece of jewelry has to its wearer, and that opens up a lot of other topics.”
6. When in Doubt, Discuss the Setting
- It sounds like a cop-out, but it works. “It’s something you share,” says Carducci. “
- If you comment on the good music or the interesting floral arrangements or how long a line for food is, and the other person agrees, that means they’re willing to talk to you.” Another fail-safe, setting-specific question is “How do you know the host?”
7. Revive a Dying Conversation.
- Don’t panic when there’s a lull in the conversation. “Silences aren’t as long as you think they are,” says Carducci. “Remember that if you say something, the other person may need to process it.
- Think of silence as a transition.” Roberts adds, “Sometimes silence is appropriate. You don’t want to seem like a babbling idiot.” If you sense that the other person is dying to get away, give him the opportunity to do so.
- Otherwise, take the conversation in a new direction using one of the above tactics. “Throw something out there,” says Carducci, “and don’t worry about making the transition smooth.”
8. Make Proper Introductions
- The true hallmark of a skilled and gracious small-talker is the ability to introduce people with ease.
- In addition to announcing names, offer a piece of information about each person, or a shared interest, thereby facilitating a conversation. “I try to be genuine and sincere and convey that each person is important, and I try to say both names slowly,” says Roberts, who gives the following example: “Kate, this is Jane. Jane and her husband just moved here from Cincinnati. Jane is interested in painting and is an artist herself. Jane, this is Kate. Kate is the museum’s director of communications.”
Things get tricky when you forget one of the names. In that instance, “mention one person’s name and gesture to the other one,” says Post. “That person will usually sense you’re at a loss and volunteer their name.” Cawley cleverly passes the buck: “I say the name of the person I do know and then say to her, ‘I’ll put you in charge of the introduction.’ ”
9. Defuse Unpleasant Situations
- For every group of lovely people you meet at a party, there’s bound to be a lemon. Type 1 is the person who has met you on several occasions but acts as if he’s never seen you before in his life. “I don’t like to play games, so I acknowledge that we’ve met right away,” says Cawley. “I’ll say, ‘You may not recall, but I remember meeting you at a fund-raiser two years ago.’ ”
- Type 2 invades your personal space. “I don’t say anything; I just move back,” says Filippini. “If they get me against a wall, I maneuver around them.” Cawley also steps back, and “if they follow me, I extend whichever hand is holding my cocktail, so they’re an arm’s length away,” she says.
Type 3 won’t stop talking about himself and hasn’t asked you a single question. “If someone is that self-centered, exit the conversation gracefully,” says Carducci. Which leads us to:
10. Make a Clean Getaway
- “Use the phrase ‘I need,’” advises Fine. “I need to get some food; I haven’t eaten all day. I need to talk to a client over there. I need to meet the speaker.” Freshening your drink, using the restroom, chatting with a friend who has just arrived, and checking in with your spouse are also valid needs.
“If you can mention something from the conversation that meant something to you,” says Roberts, “it shows that you’re not running off because you’re bored. I say, ‘I’ve enjoyed talking to you about your volunteer work, and I hope to talk to you again.’ ”
- For extreme situations, Fowler recommends establishing “rescue me” signals with a partner or a friend to let her know when you need help bailing out of a conversation. Cawley has paged herself to escape a dull party. “
- My favorite is to ask someone else nearby―a spouse or a good friend―to dance,” says Fowler, provided there’s music and others are dancing, of course.