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Safe Subjects for Drawing People Into Conversation

Can you make small talk?  Today, technology has largely eliminated the need to walk up to someone and start a conversation.  In a recent TED Talk, Amy Webb spoke on “How I Hacked Online Dating," building a spreadsheet to quantify potential partners.  It worked for her.  But while attending a party, on vacation or attending an alumni reunion you may find yourself in conversation with a stranger.  They might have the potential to be your future employer, friend or mate.  You can’t say: “Do you mind if we continue this conversation online?”  You need to draw them out.

Lights, Camera, Action – Now Be Interesting!

Like speed dating, you’ve got to catch their attention and be interesting.  This is tough.  According to the Daily Telegraph, the average attention span is 8 seconds.  FYI:  Goldfish can hold a thought for 9 seconds.

You might be talking with a successful business owner or corporate executive, someone with the potential to be a future employer or a major client at your firm.  (You have no idea how these distant points get connected, but you don’t want to screw it up.)  You need to be memorable.

You’ve dated.  You know the quickest route to disaster is to tell the other person how important you are.  We forget that rule when talking with extremely wealthy or successful people because we have an overwhelming desire to show that we fit into their world.  We exaggerate a little.  Maybe a lot.  Like dating, we come across as jerks.

Safe Subjects

Avoid “What do you do?”  This isn’t a networking event.  If you get their attention, they will ask later on.  Here are three basic conversation starters:

  • What brings them there? –- They have an obvious connection to the alumni association.  What’s your class?  Your major?
  • How they know the host? –- It’s a party in a private home.  The central connection is the person throwing the party.  What’s their connection?
  • Complement –- It worked when you broke the ice earlier.  Admire a piece of jewelry or clothing.  Mention a positive news story about their company.

Now you’ve got to keep the conversation going.  Your object is to draw them out and identify interests in common.  This lays the groundwork for seeing them again.

Here are six reasonably safe subjects:

  • Where do you live? -– Even better, “Where’s home?”
  • Travel -– Most people vacation.  You’ve either been there or you haven’t.  This can keep the conversation going.
  • Event Features –- You probably saw Love Actually.  In the wedding reception scene a waiter starts a conversation by criticizing the food unaware the other person is the caterer.  Another two guests determine if the DJ is the worst.
  • Recreation –- What do you do for fun?  Golf is on the decline in the US but it’s still popular among older Americans, Baby Boomers being the richest American Generation. Assuming they answer “Golf” and you don’t play, follow-up with “What do you do when it rains?”
  • Real Estate -– Everyone knows house prices.  Although they are secretly thrilled, they often decry the insane prices people are paying and how young people can’t get on the property ladder.  If you are a twentysomething accountant attempting to live on the Upper West Side, where the average apartment rent is $ 4,052/month, you get it.
  • Children -– People often feel theirs are the smartest.  They can do no wrong.  Get them talking about theirs.  They might never stop.  If your children and theirs attend the same school or play the same sport, you may have found common ground.

Final Thoughts
Less is more.  After you’ve talked and learned stuff, politely break away.  You might notice other people are waiting to talk with this person.  If you succeeded in getting them talking about themselves, it’s likely you’ve made a positive impression.  Remember the first rule of dating:  "The person talking is the one having a good time.”

Image: iStock/orinoco-art