Picture the first several minutes of a Zoom meeting, when attendees are still trickling in and the business at hand hasn’t yet begun. People make awkward attempts at small talk and it often falls flat.
Sure, video-call fatigue is real, but there’s got to be a better way to break the ice. And naturally, the art of making small talk will be extra-relevant once in-person gathering resumes. Whether you’re waiting for a panel to start at a conference, riding an elevator, waiting for your coffee to brew, or interacting with people you don’t know very well, you’ll find yourself in situations requiring some light conversation.
Here are some ways to liven up the chit-chat that go beyond commenting on the weather or other trite topics.
First: Find a way in
When a meeting, video call, or similar interaction first begins, it’s helpful to have a few quick conversation starters (or just one really good one!) that you can toss out to the other participants. Here are some of the most effective:
- “What’s keeping you busy these days?”
- “How has your day been so far?”
- “How are things going?”
- “What are your plans for the weekend?” or “How was your weekend? What were the highlights?”
- “Did you see that (pop culture reference)?”
- “What’s new in your world?”
Questions like these are a great way to enter a conversation that doesn’t feel forced. They’re open-ended enough that the person (or people) can choose their focus. (Whether it’s how they’re kept busy by work, family, volunteering, a pet, a hobby, etc.) This way, you’ll get everyone talking and can get a sense of the “mood” in the room.
Making your entrance with a warm smile has the power to instantly make someone feel welcomed. Entering an unfamiliar space can be nerve-racking—even for skilled conversationalists. A smile can go a long way in helping people feel comfortable.
Starting off with a big toothy grin also signals that you’re happy and excited to see someone. Chances are they will mirror your enthusiasm because most people tend to mimic a response, especially if it’s positive.
Third: Be an active listener
People can sense if you’re distracted by a text message or aren’t fully present in the conversation. Being attentive and making eye contact tells them that you’re listening.
You can also show you’re listening through your body language and gestures. Nodding occasionally, smiling or using other friendly facial expressions, and ensuring your posture is open and interested are all ways to communicate that you’re all ears.
Fourth: Start with a compliment
Compliments make for great icebreakers and they’re (usually) universally well-received. Pro networkers know that people love talking about themselves. By shifting the focus of the conversation to them, you can break down barriers of nerves and put them at ease.
If you’re on a work call, give a shout-out to one of your colleagues who recently helped you. If you’re talking to a total stranger, compliment something about their outfit, video background, or home office decor. (“Love the coat! Where’d you get it?”) There’s always something nice you can say, and doing so will create a positive backdrop.
If all else fails, try to make connections. If you’re both into the same hobby, ask how it’s going, or ask what’s inspiring them lately. If you’re both in the same restaurant, talk about your favorite item on the menu. If you know someone is from a certain city or country, bring up something related to current events. There are a million ways we can connect with one another—we’re only human, after all!
Also, remember to just relax! Take a deep breath and compose yourself before you click “Join Meeting” or join an in-person conversation. Making small talk isn’t a big deal, so try not to make it a big deal. Keep it light, avoid negativity, and ask open-ended questions. You’ll be an expert small talker in no time.