How to Avoid Awkward Silence

You know how to introduce yourself, but how do you keep the conversation going? The Public Speaker offers 5 tips for asking questions that open up communication and help you avoid those awkward silences.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #291

Have you ever struggled to keep a conversation moving?

A postdoctoral student I met after delivering a networking skills seminar shared this story with me:

She had the opportunity to meet one of her role models, a world-renowned scientist. She eagerly introduced herself, but then the conversation quickly died. 


The postdoc student explained that she had shaken hands with the scientist and then launched into an introduction she had practiced for this occasion. Since she had done her homework and researched the VIP's background—with great enthusiasm and almost all within one breath—she explained several connections they had in common. She spoke quickly of previous universities and areas of interest shared.

Of course, it was a lot to take in all at once. The scientist politely smiled and said, “Wow...that's great.” An uncomfortable silence followed, and then the scientist excused himself for a drink of water.

What happened here?

My first piece of advice was to not be too hard on herself. Haven’t we all found ourselves in a situation like this at least once? I know I have. The ability to move beyond the handshake and keep the conversation going can be an especially difficult skill.

I shared these 5 tips with her:

Tip #1: Don’t Blurt Out Everything at Once

Move slowly from one ring of the “interpersonal hula hoop” to the next. Your first goal is simply to connect on one of the outer rings—the environment or your role. For example, you might ask, "What's the most interesting talk you’ve heard today?"

You simply want your hula hoops to touch, not overlap.  As the conversation advances, you can move to deeper layers—your goals, culture, values, beliefs and emotions.

Blurting out all of the possible connections between them was too much, too soon. It also put the focus on the postdoc student, when it should have been on the scientist. Perhaps a better way to begin the conversation was to focus on just one commonality and then ask a related question.

Tip #2: Ask for Stories, Not Answers

Ask easy, open-ended, icebreaker type questions. Don’t ask a question that only requires a bland "yes" or "no" answer. This will shut down the conversation before it even starts.

See also: How to Start a Conversation


The idea is to ask for something that can be responded to in the form of a story. Your goal is to make the conversation process as easy as possible for your partner.

Try something like, “What’s been the best part of your visit to our campus so far?” or “I really enjoyed your talk. Is public speaking something that comes naturally to you?” Notice that the last question combines two interpersonal techniques—giving a genuine compliment and asking for a personal story.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.