MacPherson Language Institute

Not sure if this is for you?

Give it a shot for free!

One of our professional teachers will come to you and let you see first-hand how much fun learning a language can be! Sign up now!

Free Trial

Small Talk: A How-To Guide

Category: Business English Skills | 2017-04-26

Picture it… Standing around at your next networking event, a fantastic prospect in front of you, and nothing to say. This is a common fear a lot of people have when faced with the idea of small talk. They just don’t know what to talk about or how to get their partner speaking.

Don’t worry! With a few simple tips and a little practice, you will be a hit at your next networking event. Not only will you be able to build rapport with potential clients, but the people you speak with will remember you. And better yet, they will want to speak with you again!

To help you with this key business English skill, I’ve put together a comprehensive guide to small talk. Let’s get started!

How to Successfully Manage Small Talk

The first thing we have to look at is what exactly does small talk mean. Well, simply put, small talk is light and informal conversation. It most commonly takes place when you talk to strangers, often at networking or social events. It acts as the feeding ground for long-lasting friendships and business relationships.

How to Small Talk Well

There four keys to making effective small talk. Let’s have a look at them now:

Ask Open-Ended Questions

People are most comfortable talking about something they know. And what do they know more about than anyone? Themselves! Ask open-ended questions and they will open up to create a more dynamic conversation. Don’t be too invasive, but dig a little and you will find out what makes them tick. Then, dig a little more into the topics that they are passionate about. They will remember their conversation with you as interesting and fun, and want to talk to you again!

Practice Active listening

One of the most important aspects of being good at small talk is the ability to listen. And not simply listening, but actively listening. The person speaking will see that you are truly engaged and feel that what they say has value to you. You will also be better able to ask meaningful and relevant questions which will open up the conversation.

Furthermore, with active listening you will be able to draw on previous comments that were made and ask better follow-up questions. Pulling out an idea that was mentioned earlier in the conversation will convince the speaker that you are interested in their opinions and ideas.

Small Talk, MacPherson Lanaguage Institute


Absolutely No Phones

Pulling out your phone while talking to someone is not only rude, but it sends a terrible message. The person you are speaking with can’t help but think you are boring them and you would rather be somewhere else. Likewise, if you are standing alone looking at your phone, the chances of someone approaching you are slim to none.

Small Talk, MacPherson Language Institute

Be Enthusiastic

Small talk can definitely be a challenging task, but if you approach it with enthusiasm, you can make it a rewarding experience. Take the opportunity to speak with people as a chance to learn something new or make a valuable connection. You never know what you might get out of any given contact. They just might be your next big client.

Additionally, showing enthusiasm for a topic that is important to someone else will endear you to them and will also increase their eagerness to open up to you. The more attentive and engaged you are, the better they will feel about sharing their challenges with you. With that, you can open the door to offering solutions and creating new business opportunities.

What to Talk About

When it comes to small talk topics, there are good subjects and bad. Be sure to discuss themes that are not offensive or too divisive. The idea is to generate interesting conversations, not heated debates. Here are some topics that are good starting points for safe conversations:

The Venue

Whatever venue the social event is taking place in, there will be something to talk about. This could be the scenery if it is outside, or the architecture if it is inside. What is the history of the building? Do one of you know?


Almost everyone watches TV or movies, and most people are happy to discuss their favourite series with anyone who will listen. What about music? Do they like jazz or are they more of an R&B fan? Find out!


Maybe they are a fan of the arts. Have they been to a museum lately? Or perhaps they have been to the theatre to see the newest musical. How has art changed in the face of the internet age? There are countless ways to draw out their opinion and get them talking.


Who doesn’t like a great meal? What is on the menu at the venue? Where should you eat in town? Do they have a recommendation for you? Maybe they are a foodie and do most of their eating at home. What is their preferred cuisine? Food talk can go on for ages and will likely be a passionate discussion that won’t leave a sour taste in their mouth!


There aren’t many topics that people are more passionate about than their hobbies. Find out what they do in their spare time and dig into some local recommendations. Where is the best place to go kayaking?


This can be a dangerous topic, so be careful. The upside is that almost everyone has something to say about their work and there are some great questions to ask. Here are a couple:

  • The stereotype of (job X) is (this). Do you find that to be true in your field?
  • My nephew is considering a career in (field X). Do you have any advice for him?
  • What is the best thing about your job? What makes you get up in the morning eager to go to work?

Try to keep work talk light and friendly. It can easily turn into a negative subject so be ready to change the subject and move on.

One of the key benefits of asking about work, is that you might find an opening to generate a lead. Be attentive and not too pushy with selling your services, but be on the lookout for opportunities!


When starting a conversation about sports, make sure that everyone in the group is interested. The last thing you want to do is exclude someone. However, if everyone is game, a sports discussion can lead to a great conversation and a long-lasting friendship.

The Weather

This is the last resort of small talk, but if done right, it can lead you to other topics of more interest. Try finding out how the weather compares to their home, or yours. This can bring up another great topic of discussion, travel.

Small Talk, MacPherson Language Institute


In today’s day and age, people travel all over the world. And travel is something that people are very passionate about. Exchange opinions on common destinations or give a recommendation about your country.

What Not to Talk About

As with anything, there are two sides to the coin. And small talk topics are no different! Some topics are simply taboo and you should avoid them at all costs. Stay away from these topics to keep the conversation light and friendly:

  • Politics
  • Physical appearance
  • Religion
  • Age and Illness

Starting Off with Small Talk

One of the biggest challenges that people face with small talk is where to begin. The key is to ask interesting questions that require a detailed answer. Closed questions with yes or no answers bring a conversation to a quick end. Here are a couple of suggestions for getting it going:

  • What’s the most exciting thing about your industry at the moment?
  • I’m curious to know your story. What brought you to this place/event?
  • I’m interested in learning more about your industry. What blogs should I be checking out?
  • How did you end up in your industry? Was it a childhood dream?
  • Where’s home for you? I’ve never been there. What’s it like?

These should help get a friendly discussion going. Ask some follow-up questions and keep them engaged to create a memorable impression and build rapport.

Getting Out Alive

Another challenge of small talk is knowing when to get out and how to do it politely. If you feel you are running out of topics or there just isn’t a connection forming, get out and move on to someone else.

The easiest way to end a conversation is to have a prepared getaway plan in place. Here are a couple of suggestions for a clean exit:

  • It’s been great talking to you. Thanks for telling me about X. Do you have a card?
  • I can’t wait to hear how (subject of conversation) goes! Let’s catch up at the next (conference, meeting, get-together) and you can tell me all about it!
  • I’m going to grab a drink at the bar. It was nice meeting you!
  • I don’t want to take up all of your evening, I’m going to have a look around the venue. Enjoy the rest of the event!
Small Talk, MacPherson Language Institute

Feel free to adapt these to any situation and leave feeling confident that you have made a good impression.

How to Improve Your Small Talk

Small talk is a skill like any other. It can be honed and perfected until you feel safe talking to any stranger at any event. Here are four tips on how to get better at small talk and dominate your next social event:


As with most things, practice makes perfect. The same is true for small talk. Get out there and try it out! Go to an event and talk to someone. Chances are that you will both enjoy it. Each time you try, it will get easier so don’t hold yourself back!

Pretend You Are Talking with a Friend

It’s easy to pass an hour or two talking to an old friend about anything…or nothing! Treat a conversation with a stranger the same way. Laugh from the bottom of your belly like you would at the bad jokes your friends tell you. Listen intently when someone is sharing a current challenge with you. Show people the respect they deserve and before long you will be adding another friend to your list.

Small Talk, MacPherson Language Institute

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Most of us are our own toughest critics. We judge every word we say and analyze how we could have done better. Forget it! If an attempt at small talk didn’t go well, move on to the next person and try again. There’s a good chance the last person wasn’t nearly as offended as you think.

Set a Goal

Before you head out to your next social event, set a goal that is achievable. Maybe you want to talk with 3 new people, maybe you want to get 5 business cards. Set a goal that is reasonable and get out there and do it! A goal will give your small talk a purpose and drive you to make it happen. After the event, take a look back and measure how you did in relation to your goal. Then, set a new goal for your next event!

Putting it all together

So, now you have a tool set to work with when you get to your next social event. Remember to be an active listener and when the time is right, ask open questions and follow them up. Keep your phone in your pocket, be enthusiastic about your topics AND theirs. Stick to topics that are friendly and fun. Do these things and you are sure to captivate your audience, build rapport with potential clients and grow your network.

What small talk topics are your favourites? Which ones do you avoid like the plague? Tell us your successes and your failures! We want to hear your story because we can just as easily learn from you. Leave a comment below or share this article with a friend who could benefit. Join our monthly newsletter for more articles, tips and exclusive deals. Thanks for your reading and have a great day!



2 thoughts on "Small Talk: A How-To Guide"

  1. Norbert Frömgen says:

    Hi Keith,
    I hope, you’re fine. It’s about four years ago that I took part in your lessions. It was a great pleasure, much appreciated.
    Best regards, Norbert

    1. Hi Norbert,

      I am glad you enjoyed the lessons and thank you for following the blogs. Let me know if there are any topics you would like me to cover and I will do my best to get it out there for you. Best of luck to you in all your English endeavors!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

MacPherson Language Institute

+49 (0) 177 6304469

Free Trial

Translation Services