20+ Effortless Conversation Starters That Will Save You From Awkward Small Talk
Posted February 7, 2017, by Zahra Campbell-Avenell
Let’s face it: it’s not always easy to break the ice with a complete stranger. Whether you’re at a networking event, a party or even a job interview, the ability to strike up an interesting conversation can be the difference between being memorable or mundane. Here are some conversation starters that let you make small talk without relying on the weather report.
A Harvard University study has shown that talking about yourself activates the same reward centres in the brain as food, sex and cocaine. A similar study concluded that people are even willing to forgo money for the opportunity to talk about themselves!
So when you walk into a room full of people you don’t know, here’s an easy way to turn up the dial on the ol’ charm-o-meter:
Get them to talk about themselves.
Don’t know where to begin? Here are 20+ conversation starters that will take your small talk from stale to scintillating:
You can’t really go wrong with going up to someone and introducing yourself – chances are, they’ll be relieved that you started the conversation. The simpler, the better: something like “Hi, I’m X from Y company. Nice to meet you!” is good enough. Here are some openers to help you break the ice:
• General: How’s your day been so far?/How do you know the host?
• Situational: Aren’t these hors d’oeuvres great?/Isn’t this venue fantastic?
• Compliment: That’s a great tie/skirt! Where did you get it from? (Steer clear of anything related to a person's physical appearance!)
• Vulnerable: I don’t know anyone here so I thought I’d come and say hi (best when accompanied with a big smile!)
• News: Did you hear about…? (It's probably best not to mention anything too obscure or political.)
• Build up: If the person says where they work or what they do, you can ask them a follow-up question like, What’s it like to work there? or Oh, that’s interesting! What does a typical day look like as a ___?
When you’ve been talking for a while and have well and truly broken the ice, you can ask more open-ended questions to get to know the other person better. While I’ve seen a lot of advice suggesting that you open with something like “What’s your story?” that could come across as being aggressive or scripted. Here are some alternatives:
• What did you do last weekend?/What are you doing this weekend?
• If all jobs paid the same, what would you do for work?/What’s your passion?
• What’s the best book you’ve ever read?/What TV shows are you watching right now?
• I’m obsessed with [insert your favourite app]. What’s your favourite?
• What could you eat every single day for the rest of your life? What about your last meal?
• I’m planning a birthday dinner soon – any restaurant recommendations?
Deepening the Conversation
According to Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, one question stands out among conversation starters for its positivity and ability to give you an insight into someone’s personality: "What has the highlight of your year been so far?" Here are some others:
• If you just won a free ticket to go wherever you wanted, where would you go?
• What’s your favourite thing to do in Sydney/Los Angeles/wherever you are? (This also offers a good opportunity for follow up questions)
• What would you take to a desert island?
• If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
• If you had to eat one thing every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?
• What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?/What job do you think you’d be terrible at?
• What’s the best piece of trivia you know?
• What would you NOT do for 5 million dollars?
No matter how much you’re enjoying the conversation, you need to have an exit strategy on hand. Here are some useful closing lines:
• It was really nice to meet you, Ethel! Hope to see you at the next Y event.
• Great chatting to you, Nick! I need to go mingle, but I’ll catch you soon!
• Lovely to meet you, X! I’ll send you an email so we can catch up over coffee!
• It’s been great talking to you, X – we’ll definitely connect on LinkedIn. And thanks for the restaurant recommendation!
Do you have any killer conversation openers that have helped you form new connections? Share them in the comments below!
Zahra started writing at the age of 6, and hasn't stopped since. When she's not creating content about careers, learning and personal development, you can find her researching her next travel adventure, bingeing on Netflix or shopping online.