How to Make Meaningful Small Talk
Chatting with strangers is an everyday part of being an adult, whether you’re at a networking event, a friend’s birthday party, or your day job. If you’re an extrovert, the new convos might be just what you need. But if you hate the very idea of small talk, it’s important to find ways to manage social events with ease and recharge after a hectic holiday season to reduce your stress. We chatted with author Vanessa Van Edwards, who runs a human behavior lab called The Science of People, about how we can all learn to better navigate social situations. Her book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding With People, delves even deeper into the idea of how to use science to better understand human behavior.
1. Record yourself. In a blog post on vocal power, Van Edwards shares research showing that people judge how trustworthy or dominant you are within seconds of hearing your voice. As Van Edwards points out, “We focus on the script of our conversations or pitches, but we forget the how. When you master your conversational voice, people want to hear what you have to say.” Her best suggestion is to record yourself in different settings — chatting with friends, giving a presentation, and speaking aloud on your own. Determine what types of settings spike your nerves, then try one of the calming techniques below to quell the nervousness that might cause your voice to waver.
2. Calm your nerves. Van Edwards suggests a few tried-and-true methods for keeping yourself relaxed. Deep breathing throughout the day will help you fall into a more calming natural breathing pattern. “So when it comes times to speak, you’ll have less trouble doing it when your nerves kick in,” she says. Stay hydrated a few hours before an event so your voice doesn’t dry out when you’re speaking. Lastly, stand or sit up straight. Van Edwards says, “Research has found that our physicality can affect the sound of our voice. Standing or sitting straight while speaking radiates maximum resonance and power.”
3. Perfect your handshake. “Your handshake is a key component of your first impression,” says Van Edwards. If your palms tend to get sweaty, try Van Edwards’s napkin trick. “Order a drink from the bar and wrap a napkin around the glass. Hold the glass with your handshaking hand so the napkin absorbs your sweat before you shake someone’s hand.” Another key point: Keep your hand vertical and your thumb pointed toward the sky. Use a firm shake that’s not too tight or too limp. These simple suggestions will give anyone who meets you a positive first impression.
4. Find conversational sparks. If you’re at an event and you want to chat to a particular VIP, Van Edwards says the best way to be memorable is to fuel dopamine in the speaker. “Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released in the amygdala when we feel pleasure. Molecular biologist Dr. John Medina likens dopamine to a mental marker. When you produce dopamine during a conversation, you not only give your partner more enjoyment, but you are also assigned more significance, which increases your memorability,” says Van Edwards. Look for that person’s hot-button issues — a topic, hobby, or activity that lights them up — by asking questions about what they’re passionate about.
5. Look for engagement cues. Keep an eye out for verbal affirmations that indicate you’ve hit on a topic that excites the person you’re talking to: “Wow!” “Fascinating.” “Aaah!” Nonverbal gestures like leaning in, raising eyebrows, or smiling and using more animated gestures mean you’ve sparked some dopamine. “When you are interested, listen, and let people talk, they feel pleasure,” which is a great way to give a lasting impression, according to Van Edwards.
6. Give a unique spin on your job title. One of the first questions most people ask when they meet someone new is “What do you do?” Instead of giving a simple response, spice it up with a new take on your original job title. Says Van Edwards, “Quicken Loans has a ‘vice president of miscellaneous stuff’ who helps with a little bit of everything. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt calls its receptionists ‘directors of first impressions’ since they are typically the company’s greeters.” Be creative and you’ll be remembered.
7. Use body language to exit gracefully. When you’re at a social event and want to end a conversation with the person you’re talking to, try these suggestions to make a smooth exit. “Your last impression is just as important as your first impression,” says Van Edwards. “Point your toes in the direction where you want to go. The other person’s brain will pick up on this signal and copy you or speak more quickly.” Politely distance yourself by turning your head slightly toward the door or food table while still maintaining eye contact. Step back slightly or lean back in your chair to tee-up that you’ll be leaving soon.
What’s your best tip for rocking small talk with strangers? Tweet us @BritandCo to let us know.
Brit + Co may at times use affiliate links to promote products sold by others, but always offers genuine editorial recommendations.
(Featured photo via Getty)