Talking and eloquence are not the same: to speak, and to speak well, are two things. A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks.
Ah, the art of small talk. Sometimes it seems like there are those who are born with the gift of gab. But the truth of the matter is that being a good conversationalist is actually a learned skill. Which means, that with a bit of coaching and practice, anyone can mingle like a pro. So, what are the basics for meeting and greeting? Here are some tips to get you started.
Know Yourself ~ Always be prepared to give a self-introduction. Your name only gets you halfway there. You should also include a tidbit of information about yourself. It is this bit of information that will help you start a conversation or help the other person ask you a question. (i.e. "Hi, I am Jodi Smith, sister of the bride." "Nice to meet you, I am Jodi Smith from Boston." "Hello, I am Jodi Smith, I teach confidence.")
Be Prepared ~ Before going to any event, have a few back-up topics of conversation in mind should there be a lull in the conversation. There are many "typical topics" so be sure to choose ones that interest you. (i.e. current events, movies, plays, concerts, televisions shows, books, school/work, hobbies, family, travel, sports, pets, and when in doubt, there is always the weather!)
Catch The Ball ~ Think of a conversation as a game of catch. You throw the ball, hold on to it for a few seconds, then throw it back to the other person, who catches it, holds on to it for a few seconds, then throws it back to you again. Repeat. Good conversations involve give and take. If you find that you are not talking at all or that you are doing all the talking, something is off in your game.
Keep the Game Going I: Non Verbal ~ There are two ways to make sure your conversation continues to flow. The first is body language. Your body should face the other person, shoulders squared to theirs, open body stance (make sure your arms are not crossed and that your hands are not hidden in your pockets!), and good eye contact. In addition to body language, you should also be using listening cues. Listening cues might include nodding your head, or an occasional "um-hum."
Keep the Game Going II: Verbal ~ The second way to ensure your conversation flows is through the words you use. Be sure to ask open-ended questions -- these are questions that require at least a sentence as an answer. (i.e. "How do you know the host/hostess?", "What makes you say that?", "What was your favorite vacation?", "Tell me about...")
Practice, Practice, Practice ~ Like any other skill, small talk and conversations should be practiced. Whether it is the cashier at the local bagel store, the librarian, a fellow commuter, or someone also waiting in line, try having a brief conversation about the weather or current events. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel, and the better you will be at small talk. (Please note: manners matter, but safety first. Do not strike up conversations with strangers while alone, at night, or in a potentially dangerous situation!)
Smile ~ I know, I know, it seems so obvious, but good conversationalists are also good smilers. Let's face it; we would rather speak to someone who is smiling that with someone who is not.
Good luck and get out there!
Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I dread going to small talk type events, but I know how important they can be for my career. Any tips on making it easier?
A: I have two tips for you. The first is to have a goal. The goal can be as simple as meeting two new people. If, after talking with two new people you are still feeling uncomfortable, you can leave. But my guess is by that point you will have relaxed and will not mind staying. The second thing you should do is to have some conversation topics at the ready (see the "Be Prepared" tip above). This way you have a starting point for beginning a conversation with a new person.
Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ Recently I attended a dinner party with my spouse. We were seated next to each other. I thought proper etiquette recommended married couples be seated away from each other. Is this still true?
A: Unless you are newlyweds, it is proper to have couples seated across from one another (not next to each other). The idea here is that spouses already have heard the "funny football" story and/or the "you would not believe what happened over my vacation" story enough times. And since one sees one's spouse at home, when you are out, you are separated and allowed to talk to new conversational partners.
Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ How do I find someone to speak with when it seems everyone is already talking with someone else?
A: There are a few things you can do. First move slowly, the long way around the room, towards the bar. As you walk, see if there are any conversations that are coming to a close, anyone standing alone, or if anyone makes eye contact with you. If so, these are situations where you can begin a conversation. If you have not found anyone by the time you reach the bar, grab a drink and wait there while watching the room. Eventually, almost everyone will come by the bar and you will be able to strike up a conversation with someone.
Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ How do I politely break into a conversation?
A: The best way is to try to position yourself so that you can catch the eye of the person you are trying to reach. Then approach, you can tap the person on the elbow if you could not catch their eye, and say "I hate to interrupt, but..."