We’ve all been there. That moment when you are standing next to someone you’ve just met with nothing to say. Or maybe you’d like to start a conversation with someone but you don’t know how. Small talk is an art. There are those of us who are naturally gifted and those who have to work at it, but I promise you it does get easier and you will get better.

Depending on your personality and the situation you’re in, your approach will vary. I find I change the topics and the tone of my conversation depending on the setting – social vs. school. Small talk is often the starting point of a conversation and the goal is to find a common thread with the person you are engaging. I often find that some conversations never move past the “small talk” stage, and that’s ok. Other times small talk will lead to a more meaningful connection.

These are the three key things to keep in mind when you’re trying to make “small talk”

Keep it Light – Small talk is not a time for serious conversation. I always stick to light themes and topics that everyone can talk about. Maybe I mention the weather: How cold it is today and that I am not a fan of winter, at all! If it’s an early morning meeting maybe I’ll joke about how I only become human after my cup of coffee. I pick topics that others can relate to and the conversation develops from there.

Listen and Ask Questions – Asking simple questions really gets people to open up. I listen for cues from the conversation to ask follow up questions. This strategy not only lets the other person know that I’m listening to them but also keeps the conversation flowing, avoiding those awkward silences. For example: If after I complained about the winter, the other person said they ski and therefore look forward to winter, I will follow up with something like “Where is the closest ski hill to Toronto?”. People generally like to talk about themselves (whether they admit it or not) so asking questions about them is an easy way to get things going.

Share Your Personal Experiences – Now that you have the other person talking about something that is of interest to them, keep the momentum going. Contribute your own story about what you are discussing. For example: I would mention to my new skier friend that “I skied as a child, but nothing serious. And that a few years ago my younger brother convinced me to try snowboarding, which did not go well. So these days I prefer to sit inside with a hot chocolate.”

The hardest part of small talk is getting the other person engaged. Starting the conversation with something generic like the weather gives you an opportunity to listen for the next direction in conversation.

So the next time you’re at in an elevator say hello, mention the weather, or compliment the person on their shoes. It’s amazing how open people are to small talk and how easy it really is, once you put in the effort.

This article is written by GEM Mentor, Vanja Peric, CFA and Assistant Vice President at Bell Kearns & Associates Ltd. She’s a mentor to GEMgirl Maryam Hasam, avid traveller and loves to help others through mentorship and story telling.  

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