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Seven ways to make your small talk big

We've all been trapped in the terror of small talk, when you answer a jovial enquiry about leg-room at the start of a train journey from Penzance and then discover that your fellow traveller is an expert on Medieval weaponry and is coming with you to the Orkneys.

But never fear, small talkers, we are here to help you transition smoothly from bland cliché to earth-shattering rhetoric. Well…maybe not that. We are British, after all.

1. Mystery

Everyone likes a bit of mystery, and everyone thinks they’ve met a spy at least once. If you fancy adding an element of John le Carré to your small talk, when the conversation turns to the government or current affairs simply smile, look at your shoes and say: "I couldn’t possibly comment, I’m afraid." This will thrill your interlocutor and they’ll immediately text everyone they know to tell them that they’ve just met George Smiley.

2. Make the other person feel extraordinary

From Dale Carnegie to Paul McKenna, all the personality coaches tell you to give all your attention to the person you’re talking to and make them feel as if they are the only person in the room. This works especially well if they are, in fact, the only person in the room.

3. Copy the Queen

The Queen is excellent at small talk. In fact she is famed for it, because she meets 800,000 strangers a day and has to think of something to say to them before she snips the ribbon or unveils the plaque and can gallop back to her car. Her opening gambits are: "And what do you do?", "Have you come far?" and "And where are you king of?" These phrases are all good but if possible try not to say them in an impersonation of the Queen’s voice as that would be a bit off-putting.

4. Don’t be sarcastic

If the person you’re addressing is soaked to the skin, shaking their hair out of their eyes and folding away a sopping umbrella, a cheery "still raining then?" will earn you an entirely justified smack in the face.

5. Steer clear of the weather

It’s very tempting as a universal topic but it can go wrong very quickly if for some reason you end up over-egging the pudding and acting out "Gosh it’s cold" (rubbing arms furiously, blowing on clenched fingers), "Phew! It’s boiling out there" (elaborate fanning of face) which is exhausting and makes you feel like a CBeebies presenter.

6. Be careful of current affairs

Don’t assume the person you’re talking to has read the same thing you have. If you pick too narrow a subject, you’ll make them feel daft ("Oh sorry, I thought everyone was staggered at the financial crisis in Ouagadougou") or worse, you’ll end up having to explain something you don’t really understand either.

7. Shake them off

If everything above goes so well that you end up getting stuck with a small talker, here are a few techniques you can use to shake them off: a) Shout: "That's fascinating! Please tell me some more about that while I hold you" and move towards them with outstretched arms; b) Say: "Oops- that’s my phone" and then pretend you’re on a conference call. This is not advisable if you’re going to be trapped with them for over fifteen minutes though, as you’re going to have to keep up the "yup…yup" noises; c) Under no circumstances get yourself into a position where you give a Powerpoint demonstration.

So there we are. After you. Nice weather for the time of year, isn’t it?

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For further research on the skills of small talk and the rules of banter, listen to this episode of Word of Mouth on Small Talk.

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