‘My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I all good company.’ ‘You are mistaken’, said he gently, ‘that is not good company, that is the best’” – Jane Austen (Persuasion).

Oh how right they are – great company with sparkling flowing conversation, it’s hard to beat it.
And once you are in that zone, with the conversation flowing freely, it is easy to contribute one’s own observations and experiences especially when the topic comes to something one likes.

But we never find ourselves magically in the middle of such conversation, they all have to start somewhere.

With the dreaded Small Talk!

Who likes small talk? Certainly there are some people who naturally relish the chance to partake, but for the vast majority small talk is something to be avoided where ever possible. It is scary, nerve-wracking, nobody knows what to say. And it’s not just us “ordinary” people who fear it; it seems that even the big-league players, VPs of multinational companies who think nothing of holding court in high-power business meetings, find themselves floundering like a child when it comes to social chit-chat and small talk.

You know what it’s like. You are in a room, perhaps at a party or maybe a the pre-seminar coffee-room at registration, or where ever. You see someone and feel you ought to chat, but you can’t think of anything to say other than “hello” and “what brings you here” (probably the same thing as brings you here, obviously!), so you miss out on the opportunity. Or you do go up to them and have a scintillating conversation along the lines of

You – “Hello”.
Them – “Hello”.
You – “So where are you from?”
Them – “London, you?”
You – “Manchester.”

and there the conversation dies as you can’t think of what to say so you drift away to the next person and repeat the same soul-destroying process over and over again.

I only there was a way of livening up that opening conversation without it sounding like you are launching into a well-rehearsed monologue or grilling them in an interview.

Ah, but there is a way. It requires a little bit of work on your part in advance, but once you’ve done that work once it will serve you for many conversations to come.

Why does the conversation opener above fail? Because neither one of you knows anything about the other (yet), you have no common framework, don’t know of any common interests, and the short conversation gives no clues – you both literally have nothing to talk about because neither of you gives the other anything to talk about. And as we typically only allow a precious few moments to see if a conversation will develop, with nothing to talk about the conversation is doomed from the outset.

So what if, instead of giving closed answers, we give more open answers; answers with a little bit more meat to them, which the other person can then use as a conversational springboard?

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Them – “Hello”.
You – “Hello.”
Them – “So, where are you from?”
You – “I’m from Nowheresville, it’s a small village but it was one of the main producers of widgets at the turn of the century, and has the oldest pub in the country. How about you?”

You’ve just given the other person several juicy chunks which they can use to build the conversation – it might move to talking about life in villages or widgets or pubs or history, which gives plenty of scope for conversation.

I recall a networking event I was attending in the bar after a seminar. The evening was wearing on and I was thinking about heading home having had about as many forced-yet-fruitless conversations as I could handle for the night, when a delegate I’d not spoken to before said hello. We quickly introduced ourselves to each other and he asked where I was from. Noting that he had a hint of a Scottish accent and in his hand a glass of what could well have been whisky, I responded that I’m originally from a small village called Aberlour in the heart of Malt Whisky country and indeed from my old bedroom window I could see the Macallan distillery across the valley. Turns out my guess about the contents of his glass were right and my answer lead us into a wonderful long, wide-ranging and productive conversation.
Now, had I not seen his whisky glass nor detected his accent then I’d have probably opted for a different nugget of information about my home town, or I might not even have mentioned where I grew up and instead mentioned where I live now.

You see, as helpful as the extra information you slip in is, it has to be relevant – after all, it has to be something which can spark off a conversation which means it has to have a good chance of being vaguely relevant to the person you are speaking with; you can’t just use the same stock answer for all occasions and hope to impress, you need to use the right hook for the job. Which is where a little bit of research on your part in advance will reap dividends for months and years to come.

What do you know, right now, about your home town? If someone asked you to list 10 interesting facts about where you are from, could you do it? Possibly, although the vast majority of us would struggle after about 3 or 4 items at the most. And if we are struggling to come up with interesting facts in the calm and comfort of reading this article, imagine how much harder it is to think of them when faced with a new conversation?

Which is why the effort you are about to spend on a little bit of research will be so worthwhile as it will enable you to slip in relevant little snippets as the circumstance arises. As with any research, there are a wide variety of sources open to you including, naturally, the internet, but also (depending upon the place you have in mind) other sources such as Tourist Information, local newspapers, local business associations, even estate agents.

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Have a good look around and come up with at least 10 different interesting snippets of information about your home town, gems which you could easily slip into your answer to “Where are you from?” in order to get the conversation going. Make sure they cover different topics and cover as wide a selection as possible, because you are going to need to rely upon these to help you cover all eventualities.
And once you have your list of 10 interesting facts, memorise them – you will need to be able to recall them and slip them in effortlessly, so a little extra preparation at this stage will help you move from being stuck at small talk and on to being known as a well-informed person with whom others enjoy great conversation!