Let’s face it: starting a conversation can be intimidating. Whether you’re meeting a total stranger, trying to network, or on a first (or even tenth) date, it’s often difficult to know what to say to start a conversation and keep it flowing.
Introducing yourself to a stranger or approaching an acquaintance might seem anxiety-inducing, but it shouldn’t be. “It’s far riskier to get on a highway in a car than it is to walk up to somebody at a party or a networking event,” says Debra Fine, author of the Fine Art of Small Talk. Luckily, even though it might seem like good conversation skills are something some people are just born with, all it takes is a bit of practice.
Here are Fine’s tips on how to start a conversation.
1. Remember there’s no such thing as a “perfect line.”
According to Fine, people tend to get hung up on searching for the “perfect line” to start a conversation. “There is no perfect line,” Fine says. “Be the first to say hello. The worst thing they can do is reject you.” Chances are, they’ll be happy you introduced yourself.
2. Use what you already know to your advantage.
You’re at the same party as this person, right? Or maybe you’re at a networking event for the same industry. Fine calls facts like these “free information about the occasion or location,” and recommends that you use them to your advantage to strike up a conversation. If you’re at the same party, chances are you were invited by the same person, so you can ask, “what’s your connection to the host or hostess?”
3. Don’t ask “How are you?”
Fine says that asking “how are you?” is a lazy way to start a conversation, but that most people don’t know better. If someone else asks how you are, you can still turn it into an interesting chat. Instead of just saying “good,” give the other person something to work with. This can be anything: you can say you’ve been busy at work, or tell them that you’re going home for the holidays. Just keep it short. “Only a sentence, not a narrative,” says Fine.
4. Instead, say “Tell me about you.”
If you’re talking to someone you just met, ask them to tell you about them self. Fine recommends asking, “Tell me about you.” It’s an open-ended question that lets whoever you’re talking to choose what they want to tell you about. They can decide what they want you to know about them, and the conversation will flow from there.
5. Ask, “Catch me up on your life since the last time I saw you.”
If you’re striking up a conversation with a friend or acquaintance, this is a simple lead-in. Fine likes to ask this question because it doesn’t put someone on the spot if they’ve recently gone through a life change. Nothing is more of a buzz-kill than asking someone about their job only to find out they’ve been recently let go.
6. Ask someone what keeps them busy.
Instead of asking, “What do you do?” Fine prefers a more open-ended approach. She likes to ask, “What keeps you busy?” “It’s just a much better way to launch a conversation with someone,” she says. Keep in mind where you met the person: If it’s someone you know from work or school, ask what keeps them busy outside of that. Unlike asking someone if they’re married or what they do for work, an open-ended question gives the other person more flexibility with how they respond.
7. It’s okay to offer your opinion, but give the other person a chance to offer theirs, too.
We all have opinions, and a lot of times, they spark conversations. But if you want to keep conversation flowing, you need to make sure that the person you’re talking to has a chance to voice their opinion too. “I’m very careful to say, ‘and what do you think about that?’” says Fine. “As long as you solicit the other person’s opinion, it does not hurt conversation.”
8. Offer verbal cues.
No one wants to feel like they’re talking to a wall. One key to being a better conversationalist is to let people know that you’re following along, says Fine, who recommends giving verbal cues. As someone is talking to you, ask simple questions so they know you’re listening and paying attention. Oh, what did you mean by that? What happened first? What happened next? I see. Well, that must have been tough.
9. Body language is everything.
You’ll be a more successful conversationalist if you look approachable. “Even if you feel serious and or overwhelmed by walking into a room where you don’t know anyone, try to find a smile to put on your face,” Fine says. “Look approachable, give eye contact. You’re more likely to have someone walk up to you than if your eyes are down.” Be aware of your body language throughout the conversation. If you tend to keep your arms crossed, Fine recommends wearing something with pockets to avoid looking closed off.