Conversation Hacking – How To Make Small Talk Work For You

“Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”  
– Oscar Wilde

Which do you prefer –  making casual small talk, or engaging in deep, meaningful conversations?  Personally I prefer deeper conversations with people whose company I enjoy, and in this article I’m going to reveal a simple, effective strategy I use when meeting new people.  This step by step strategy enables me to to break the ice, quickly transition through small talk – and get on to forging real connections with people.

It’s not just me that thinks deep conversations are good policy however – recent research suggests a correlation between happiness and more meaningful conversations. In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers found:

“[H]igher well-being was associated with having less small talk, and having more substantive conversations… [C]ompared with the unhappiest participants, the happiest participants had roughly one third as much small talk (10.2% vs. 28.3%) and twice as many substantive conversations (45.9% vs. 21.8%).
– Source: Eavesdropping on Happiness

Does that mean that having deeper conversations will make you happier? I can’t guarantee that. I can guarantee that if you follow my strategy and enjoy deep conversations, you’ll enjoy your social interactions more – and likely make more meaningful connections in the process.

So, what is this strategy? I call it conversation hacking.

Conversation Hacking in Four Easy Steps

I had a real breakthrough recently when I had the opportunity to meet a variety of new random people at a series of large social events.  I thought this would be a great opportunity to see if I could break through what I dreaded most: small talk.  I decided to take a more active approach than simply letting the discussion flow in any direction, and scripted out phases in my social interactions to help move the conversation forward.

There are four steps involved, and I’ll discuss them in detail:

  • Breaking The Ice/Initiating Conversation – This is where people generally use unguided small talk just to see where it goes.  I instead lead with a specific intent.
  • Basic Introduction To Conversation Topics – A natural segway from small talk to more meaningful discussion.
  • Intermediate Conversation Topics – If they are familiar with my broad conversation topic, we can trade stories and specific examples, learning from each other.
  • Advanced Conversation Topics – Where I want to get to, and the level of conversation I have with my geeky friends. We both know the material, and are not trading information – we are analyzing and sharing opinions.  When I spend time with someone who I really have a strong connection with, this is where most of the conversation takes place.

So before I even get into small talk, I first start by thinking of something interesting I wanted to talk about, and then plan backwards into a good, neutral conversational topic for small talk.  This makes more sense with a specific example, so let’s use a real life example.

I love Seth Godin’s book Tribes, and enjoy telling stories from the book in everyday conversation (as well as hearing other people’s stories on the topic). So I am going to lay out step by step how I used this strategy, very specifically using Tribes as an example, so you can see how you might apply it with your own topics. For those not familiar with the book, don’t worry – as you’ll see the specific questions and examples I use, you’ll learn a bit about what it’s about – and that might even be better, since you’ll first hand see how a conversation with me would go!

Step 1 – Small Talk.  Breaking The Ice/Initiating Conversation

We need to start with small talk.  As quickly as I can, I inject my small talk into the conversation.  Here are a few examples of how I did it.  I almost always lead with “Hey, this might seem kind of weird but I find it fascinating, I’ll explain in a second.”  I follow that up with one of these questions:

  • How many close friends do you think you have? Oh yeah? And how many friends and acquaintances total?
  • How many friends do you have on Facebook?

We have now introduced friends, and the social circle into conversation. Easy small talk, they share, I share, we might go off on a tangent about Twitter or Facebook.  On up the ladder.

Step 2 – Basic Introduction To Conversation Topics

We’ll talk for a few seconds about the question I posed, and then I lead into this topic:

“I recently read Tribes by Seth Godin, have you heard of him or the book?  Well there’s one concept in there I really liked, it’s called Dunbars number.  Basically, it theorizes that people can maintain stable relationships with up to 150 people at once, and after that relationships break down.”

Discuss the concept of Tribes as in the book (if they don’t know the book). If they have more or less than 150, discuss depth and implications.  Perhaps they will share anecdotes here about losing touch with friends, making new friends, other interesting psychological phenomena that they know about, how Facebook is overwhelming. I might go off on a tangent here about the Twitter firehose, etc.

Regardless of the tangents, the important thing to note is this:  We have now introduced Tribes, and Seth Godin into conversation.

Step 3 – Intermediate Conversation Topics

Depending on how the conversation goes in step 2, your work might be done. The tangents will provide ample opportunity to delve deeper into topics. If needed though, I like to have a plan to direct the conversation if it looks like it might stagnate back into small talk.

  • Share anecdotes from within Tribes.  Nathan Winograd no-kill shelters is a great one.  Talk ab
  • If they are familiar with Seth Godin discuss his other works. I can share discuss how I have emailed Seth and he replies to my emails – and I’m not special, he replies to everyone.  We can talk about the implications this has for Seth’s Tribe

At this point we have moved beyond just introducing Tribes – we are digging into the actual concepts in the book, and having a real discussion about examples of Tribes in the world.

Step 4 – Advanced Conversation Topics

If they are still with me, we can have a real conversation!  At this point the conversation is going to depend on who they are, their personal experiences, and the knowledge they have of the in depth topic we’re talking about.

The big difference here, is that we are not longer just sharing information – we are analyzing and discussing at a very involved level, and both parties are benefiting from a deeper conversation.

The Results

I used this with a half dozen or so different topics, and conversations just flew open. We discussed all kinds of tangents from there. I met someone who was a fan of Tribes and Seth Godin, and jumped straight from level 0 to level 3.

For me personally, I really dislike staying at small talk – I much prefer to be at level 3, learning and sharing   At social events where I am meeting someone for the first time though, starting at level 3 I will lose most people unless they happen to have the appropriate background. With just 2 minutes of talk preceding to build up to it however it’s easy to go through these levels and get there.  They aren’t very involved – it can be as little as 1 minute to go from small talk to having a real conversation. It’s just a matter of gently leading the conversation. And at the end of the night, people often want to find me on Facebook or trade contact information – because we’ve had a real discussion and formed a real connection

Your Thoughts?

What do you think? Would you use an approach like this? Do you think it’s ill advised?  Do you prefer to make small talk and spontaneously see where the conversation goes?

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