Gwyneth Paltrow and Winona Ryder, Armani Party 1996. Photo by ALEX OLIVEIRA/REX/Shutterstock.
‘Tis the season for drinking Champagne and dancing on the tables, but with all that partying comes the inevitable new introductions and socialising with strangers – something even the most confident amongst us can struggle with at times.
The social equivalent of cold calling, small talk isn’t always easy, even after copious amounts of fizz! So we asked Catherine Blyth, author of the 1998 classic The Art of Conversation (£9.99, John Murry, available from Amazon) to reveal her five secrets and surprises of good conversation.
“Did you travel far to come here tonight?”
Surprised? Were you expecting a life-and-the-soul-of-the-party opener of Oscar Wilde proportions? Yes, it may be boring, but this question is such a brilliant conversation starter, it’s a favourite of the Queen (and HRH certainly knows how to work a room). “People struggle with small talk, not because of the bonfire in inanities, but because of the pressure to perform,” says Catherine. “They think they have to be fascinating, witty and entertaining. You don’t. You’re far better at trying to find a subject where you both have common ground, no matter how trivial it is. Talking about how you both got to the party, the event itself, what you’re doing for Christmas, even the weather, will give you both something to share equally and bond over.”
“What a gorgeous room. Love the glitter balls. What do you think of the décor?”
A common mistake we make when meeting somebody for the first time is interrogating them with a stream of questions about themselves. ‘What do you do for work?’; ‘Where do you live?’, etc. Rather than inviting yes, no and one-sentence answers, Catherine recommends offering open-ended questions and using her conversation formula. “Keep this little fail-safe recipe in your head for those awkward moments: make two observations, then tag on a question,” she says.
“Love your outfit! Tell me, where did you get it from?”
The quickest and easiest way to make people smile is to give them a compliment. “Rather than worrying about how you feel, transfer your focus on making the other person feel good. It works every time,” says Catherine.
“I’m dreading Christmas shopping. Any ideas on what I could buy?”
Asking for advice is another clever way to make someone feel like your friend in a gentle way. “It could be tips on Christmas shopping, suggestions for holiday plans – even how to walk in ridiculously high heel shoes,” says Catherine.
Remember this very important rule: great conversationalists listen more than talk. “Don’t feel the onus of conversation is solely on you. Follow my tips above, ask open questions, then let others do some talking,” says Catherine.