Small Talk, Big Results | Conversation Starters for Connecting at Work

Small talk is a necessary part of almost any job. Aside from getting to know new coworkers, you may attend conferences and networking events that make the sea of unfamiliar faces even larger. Superficial as it may seem, small talk plays an important role in forging authentic connections with colleagues.

Whether you’re attending an informal meet-and-greet or connecting with your officemates, here’s how to leave a good impression—and even enjoy yourself.

Bringing up the basics

The most important part of small talk, fortunately, is the easiest: paying attention to the other person. People respond well to someone who’s genuinely interested in what they have to say.

Remember names. People appreciate this effort more than you may realize. Everyone has forgotten the name of an acquaintance at some point, but you don’t have to make this a pattern. These focus fixes have been proven to work:

  • Repeat the name aloud—say “Nice to meet you, [NAME]”—right after you learn it. Say the name again at the end of your conversation.
  • Connect the name to any mental association you’ll find easy to remember, like an image or a personal memory. Most people find images easier to recall than words.
  • After meeting several new people, review who you met. Write their names down in a list if you’re a visual learner.

Start with a compliment. This is a smart initial gambit if you can’t think of anything to say. You can mention something simple like a piece of clothing or an accessory you admire. Even better, use any information you might have about the person already—congratulate them on a recent professional accomplishment, for instance.

Ask open-ended questions. Think of questions that go beyond a “yes” or “no” answer, and see where the conversation goes from there. This gives your contact a chance to get the ball rolling. The “five W’s”(who, what, when, where, and why) are a great place to start if you’re stuck. For example:

  • “What did you think of the presentation we just saw?”
  • “Why did you choose to attend this event?”
  • “Where do you work? What have you been working on lately?”

Join an ongoing conversation. If people are mingling, walk over to a group that seems to be making light chit-chat and stand nearby. Listen to what people are saying and chime in if you have something to contribute. A lull in the conversation is a great place to introduce yourself.

Prepping for “shop talk”

Work is a great springboard for a chat with someone new. After all, work is what brought you together in the first place.

Here’s where you can do some research beforehand. If you know who will be at the event, see what career-related accomplishments they have shared online. Maybe someone has been doing fascinating research or working in a role you see yourself in someday, or perhaps the organization an attendee works for has spearheaded a new initiative you’d love to learn more about.

Even if you don’t have prior info, you can ask thoughtful work-related questions.

To take it beyond “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” and try:

  • “What’s your role at the organization?”
  • “Why did you choose this field?”
  • “What do you find most rewarding about your work?”
  • “How has [CURRENT EVENT OR INDUSTRY DEVELOPMENT] affected your work?”

And to get past “How long have you worked there?” you can try:

  • “What have you learned so far?”
  • “Is the job different from what you expected?”
  • “What are you looking forward to in the next few months?”
  • “What developments have you seen in your field?”

Getting personal

Coffee breaks and the like offer a more relaxed setting to get to know people, and you can expand your dialogue to life outside the office.

Entertainment can be a light, fun topic, but remember that not everyone has similar tastes in—or access to the same—media. Your conversation partner might not have seen the Netflix show everyone is talking about, but they can probably share some great recommendations of their own.

Lead with friendly, non-specific questions like:

  • “What books/shows/podcasts are on your list to check out once you have some free time?”
  • “Can you recommend any media about [MUTUAL INTEREST]?”

Passions and hobbies outside of work can also open up a conversation. Build on the conventional opener of “What do you like to do for fun?” with:

  • “How did you get involved in [HOBBY OR INTEREST]?”
  • “What’s your favorite part of [LEISURE ACTIVITY]?”
  • “What makes [PASSION OR INTEREST] important to you?”

Gaining inspiration

Especially in the social-impact space, people are often eager to take discussions beyond the everyday details of work to the big picture view of their field. Ask about people’s dreams and broader aspirations and you’ll get a better sense of who they are.

Start with questions like:

  • “How do you see yourself getting involved in your organization’s broader plans?”
  • “If you could hand-pick your ideal job, what would it look like?”
  • “What are the biggest challenges in your field right now?”
  • “What’s been the most exciting development in your field over the last year?”
  • “Tell me about the highlights of your work week/month.”
  • “What are your personal goals for the upcoming year?”

Broader inquiries show that you want to learn more than a person’s name and job title. You care about what motivates them, what obstacles they face, and what improvements they want to make in their fields.

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What questions have you been asked (or asked others) at a networking event or in the office that sparked great conversation?

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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.
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