Terrible at Small Talk? A Public Speaking Expert Wants You to Avoid These 7 Mistakes


As we slowly make our way back to some form of normalcy, we’ve welcomed the return of intimate gatherings, small work events, and coffee meet-ups. But along with the good come some facets of everyday life we may not have missed; namely, small talk. With so many returning to the office again, the social nicety is back in a big way. Small talk has always been a skill to be mastered, but it may feel even more daunting in 2021. Thankfully, you’re not alone. After hearing so many clients express anxiety about the return of office banter, John Bowe, a speech trainer and author of I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection, was inspired to share a few tips with CNBC to help to get the conversation effortlessly flowing once again. However, the award-winning journalist is more interested in meaningful connection than perfecting speaking skills, so in place of how-to tips to tackle, Bowe provides conversational pitfalls to avoid.

The funny thing about office small talk, of course, is how universal its challenges feel. Scroll on for a few of our favorite Bowe insights that are particularly relatable for everyday gatherings.

Consider Your Entry

When mingling at a party or even just a communal area, knowing how to drop seamlessly into an already ongoing conversation can be intimidating, but timing is everything.

“First, wait for a lull. Then once you have someone’s attention and, ideally, receive a non-verbal go-ahead, that’s your chance,” Bowe writes for CNBC. “Keep distance in mind, too; don’t stand too close or too far away. You do want to be heard. You don’t want to shout or come across as creepy.”

Don’t Dive in With Controversial Topics

Being able to have challenging conversations is important, but when it comes to a light discussion with someone you’re still getting acquainted with, consider sticking to something you know you both share.

“If you gravitate towards [controversial] topics later on, great. But for starters, aim for something simple and close at hand that you and the other person can observe together,” Bowe writes.

Don’t Make It About Yourself, But Don’t Make It All About Them

There’s nothing worse than leaving a conversation feeling worried that you’ve left the wrong impression. Did I ask them enough questions? Did I just make that whole exchange about me? Naturally, if you’re nervous about commandeering the chat, you may end up putting too much pressure on the other person. The best conversations are balanced ones.

“Nobody likes to feel interrogated, so if you sense that questions aren’t welcome, back off. Instead, tell a story, offer an opinion or otherwise relieve them of the burden of performance,” Bowe explains.

Don’t Write Off Small Talk Altogether

It’s easy to dismiss the informal discourse as too trivial or insincere. Having a disdain for small talk can practically become a personality trait. But polite conversations about seemingly unimportant things can lead to something so much greater.

“Every relationship you value began somewhere—with an initial conversation,” Bowe notes. “Was it profound? Did you cure cancer? No. But you made a genuine connection.”

Read the full story, complete with all of Bowe’s insight, on CNBC.com.


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