I recently posted an episode about conversation continuers, which was extremely popular. Today I'd like to discuss conversation starters. And by the way, here's a bit of trivia. Did you know that the first episode of The Public Speaker was about how to start a conversation? (I had thought it was a good idea to start our "conversation" with tips about starting a conversation.) But that was five and a half years ago! A lot has changed in the past five years—especially when it comes to making conversation.
The Trouble with Conversation
Conversation is becoming a lost art. We all know, from our own experiences, that young people today connect more on social media than in person. They often admit they have trouble talking to people in person. But even those of us who didn’t grow up with social media now tend to email people more than we call them. Many people say that it’s because, in an email, we can compose our thoughts first. That’s a valid argument, but we should be able to compose our thoughts while conversing, too. That’s the art of conversation. And email and social media don’t convey proper emotional cues, and can often damage relationships because of that. In fact, just having a cell phone out while talking has been proven to damage conversation. Even young people notice it. The New York Times recently published a poignant article, quoting young people who wanted their parents to stop googling and talk to them.
The Importance of Small Talk
One of the most important components of conversation is small talk. In Why You Should Embrace Awkward Small Talk, I explain that small talk is the way to opening the door. When you open a door to communication and leave it ajar, it makes the other person feel valued, and it says that you’re interested in her and what she has to say. It allows for a gentle flow from light conversation to something deeper. This could be a conversation in business, or it could be an emotional conversation that binds and connects you and the other person.
The Value of Connections
Why does it matter? Connections are extremely important. We’re social beings and need social interaction, even the most introverted of us. An interesting study on talking to strangers demonstrated that even the most introverted people in the study, who disliked talking to strangers, felt surprisingly better after doing so. It just feels nice to connect with another human being, even a stranger. Of course, in business, your career and income can depend on healthy connections.
Starting a Conversation
So, how do you start a conversation with a stranger on the train, or a stranger at a business function?
There are a few fundamentals that will always guide you in conversation, and they all fall under one main point: focus on the other person. First, be comfortable with yourself. The conversation’s not about you, so don’t feel self-conscious. It’s about connecting with the other person, about finding common ground. Second, be genuinely interested in learning about the other person. Third, be aware of your surroundings and of current news events. They make good conversation starters. Is there anything unusual or special about your immediate surroundings? Is there something interesting on TV or happening in local sports? Finally, and most importantly: listen! It will signal your sincere interest, and if you’re really listening, it will give you clues to keep the conversation going.