Better Small Talk: Patrick King’s Advice for Talking to Anyone

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What’s the point of small talk? Why is it important to be skilled at it?

Life is full of conversations—in both personal and professional settings. In Better Small Talk, Patrick King shows how you can improve the quality of your small talk and use it to shift conversations into more interesting and meaningful territory.

Continue reading for an overview of this practical and relevant book.

Overview of Better Small Talk

In Better Small Talk, Patrick King builds on the premise that small talk is a necessary first step of any conversation; you can’t bypass it and hope to have a successful dialogue with someone. By following his advice, you can enjoy small talk more and harness it to have more engaging, interesting, and entertaining conversations.

Patrick King is a social interaction specialist who coaches people on dating, personal presentation, and communication. He’s written a number of e-books on online dating, emotional intelligence, and communication.

We’ll first present King’s argument for why small talk is indispensable to any conversation. We’ll then show how you can warm yourself up for small talk and how to engage someone in conversation for the first time. Then, we’ll move on to later parts of the conversation, explaining how you can transition to more interesting topics and how you can become an engaging storyteller. We’ll end by describing how to take good care of the person you’re talking to so they want to continue the conversation.

Why Do I Have to Make Small Talk?

King notes that many people claim to hate small talk and would rather dive into meaningful conversation right away. However, he says you cannot have deep, meaningful conversations with people without first getting to know them through small talk. People generally aren’t willing to share intimately with someone they’ve just met, so small talk is a way to establish familiarity and comfort before getting to more meaningful and personal topics.

This makes small talk an indispensable part of human communication—and even a key to our overall well-being, because without successful social interaction, our health and happiness suffer. You should aim, therefore, to be better at making small talk and using it to advance the conversation into more interesting territory.

Conversational Stages

To better understand the role of small talk in conversation, let’s look at the conversational stages King outlines. These stages become increasingly meaningful. If you try to bypass early stages and get right to “meaty” topics, you might end up pushing the other person away.

Stage 1: Small talk. This revolves around topics anyone can talk about—the weather, current events, and so on. 

Stage 2: Sharing facts. In this stage, you share objective, background facts about yourself, like where you live, what you do for work, and so on. 

Stage 3: Sharing opinions and finding common ground. Here you’re trying to find things you might have a shared opinion on, like a favorite coffee shop or TV show.

Stage 4: Sharing feelings. Now you finally get to talk about your feelings. As you become better acquainted with the other person, you can share increasingly vulnerable feelings.

Prepare to Have Better Conversations

Now that you understand the importance of having small talk, let’s discuss how to have it and how to improve the overall quality of your conversations. 

To get better at any sort of conversation, you need to prepare to have it beforehand—in the same way you should warm up your muscles before running a race. Here are five prep techniques King recommends that set you up for greater success in conversations:

Have more low-pressure interactions. When you engage frequently in short, unimportant conversations, you keep your social and conversation muscles warmed up. These interactions can be brief: Simply asking a question or making an observation to another person is sufficient. King suggests, for example, that you make use of mundane interactions with service workers to warm up. It’s part of their job to make you, as a customer, feel good, so there’s little danger of it going awry. Plus, they’re often bored at work and appreciate some light engagement.

Prepare your voice for conversation. To sound confident and charismatic in conversation, you need to also warm your voice up. You can do this by reading something out loud—ideally something with emotional weight (like a paragraph from a work of fiction or a play). Once you’ve read it, read it again with as much exaggerated emotion as possible—if there’s a sad part, read it with extreme pathos, for instance. While doing this, try to speak clearly and at a comprehensible pace. Project your voice and avoid a monotonous tone.

Develop a conversation résumé. This is a mental list of the things about you that are interesting and would engage other people. Having a résumé ensures you enter any conversation with a few good talking points and avoid awkward pauses. According to King, you should craft and regularly update four parts of your conversation résumé so you can easily talk about them in any context: 1) what’s going on in your day or week, 2) what’s going on in your life more broadly, 3) unique experiences and traits you have, and 4) your takes on current events.

Expand your field of reference. King writes that people generally prefer to talk to others who lead interesting lives and can contribute thoughts on a wide range of topics. He says you can prepare to have more engaged conversations by expanding your field of reference: Pursue more of your interests and educate yourself about new topics and ideas.

Become more open-minded. If you constantly judge or shut down others’ views, people won’t feel comfortable when talking to you and will eventually avoid you entirely. Prepare to have good talks by becoming more open-minded and tolerant of new opinions. To do this, King encourages you to avoid making assumptions, stop clinging to your own views and opinions, and prioritize connection over being right.

Starting a Conversation With Small Talk

Once you’ve done some prep work to enhance your conversational abilities, you can begin engaging others in conversation—starting with small talk.

King writes that we’re often afraid of making the first move because we feel we’re intruding. We lack the confidence to simply approach someone and introduce ourselves with the obvious intention of striking up a conversation. One way to get around this fear is to find an excuse to approach someone. This lets you feel that you have a good reason to talk to them and overrides your fear of annoying the other person.

King notes that there are a few common “excuses” you can use to approach someone:

  1. Ask a question (to which you might even already know the answer).
  2. Ask about or note something you have in common.
  3. Make an observation the other person can respond to.

Even if you start with a great question or observation, for small talk to be pleasant and easy-going, you must create a pleasant and easy-going atmosphere. People adjust to the tone you set in the conversation, so if you behave and speak playfully and with a sense of humor, the other person will likely feel that way, too, leading to better, easier conversational flow.

Moving the Conversation Past Small Talk

Once you’ve made some small talk and sense that the other person is interested in engaging further, you can work on moving the conversation forward. King stresses that to keep a conversation going, you must become adept at transitioning to and exploring new topics. If you remain stuck on one topic, the conversation will quickly become boring, and one of you will likely end it.

Here are some ways King recommends to keep the conversation moving forward: 

Find Similarities to Talk About

The best topic to turn to after you’ve made some small talk is things you have in common. Finding similarities strengthens your connection: King says that humans have a strong evolutionary urge to be around people similar to themselves because they’re more likely to be understood. 

To find similarities, be alert for even small areas of overlap that might lead you to discover larger similarities. If you discover that you both frequent the same bookstore, asking further questions might lead you to learn that you’re both fans of the same author, for instance. You may have to probe a bit if immediate similarities aren’t apparent.

Memorize Acronyms That Advance the Conversation

King also recommends memorizing nine different types of responses you can make to a comment. Each approach can lead you into new conversational territory, and they’re represented by three acronyms:

HPM: History, Philosophy, Metaphor. History entails contributing a story from your personal history. Philosophy entails offering an opinion or personal philosophy on the topic. Metaphor entails going farther afield, bringing up something the topic reminds you of.

SBR: Specific, Broad, Related. Specific entails asking a more detailed question about something said. Broad means asking a more general question. Related entails moving in a slightly different direction to ask about something tangential (if you’re talking about the croissant you’re both eating, a related question might be to ask if the other person’s ever been to France or if they like to bake themselves).

EDR: Emotion, Detail, Restatement. Emotion means positing what you think the other person’s feelings were about something they just said (“Going to Paris must have been incredible!”). Detail means asking for more detail specifically in relation to the other person. (“How did you like the Renoir paintings in the Louvre?”) Restatement simply entails restating what the other person just said to show them you’re listening and encourage them to elaborate (“The painting had been stolen?!”).

Free-Associate to Explore New Topics

At times and despite your best efforts, your conversation might still stagnate. In such cases, King recommends you continue the conversation by free-associating with the existing conversation topic. Free-associating means summoning to mind and mentioning the first thing (or few things) you think of in relation to the topic. This can move the conversation into new, fertile ground.

Improving the Quality of Your Conversation Through Storytelling

Now that you’ve mastered the basics of small talk and sustaining dialogue, you can “level up” to being an engaging conversationalist who’s fun to talk to. King asserts that being engaging in conversation simply means being good at telling stories. People would rather hear an interesting story that doesn’t have much to do with what you were talking about than have a predictable exchange.

King adds that another benefit of storytelling is furnishing details that will resonate with others or paint a picture of who you are. This, in turn, makes people feel more invested in your story and in you. Telling the story in this way also creates a vivid image in the listener’s mind, which makes the story more engaging and reveals something about you (in this case, that you don’t take yourself too seriously and that you might have road rage).

To become a better storyteller, first recognize that you can create a compelling story out of any quotidian event. The level of engagement you achieve has more to do with how you tell the story than the events you’re describing. To tell a story well, King recommends keeping the story limited to one sentence describing one event, which evokes one sentiment (a structure he refers to as the 1:1:1 rule). Keeping your story short and specific ensures you don’t ramble and gives a clear reason for the story—to evoke laughter, amazement, and so on.

How to Tell Mini-Stories

King also specifically recommends preparing what he calls “mini-stories” about your life that you can tell in a variety of situations. A mini-story should be three sentences, and you should come up with a mini-story for common conversational topics, like work, your hometown, your week or weekend, and so on.

How to Take Care of Your Conversation Partner

So far, we’ve focused on how you can shine in conversation. But, of course, good conversations can happen only if the other person feels good when they talk to you. So, we’ll talk about how to ensure your conversation partner feels important and heard and will want to keep engaging with you in the future.

Make Space for the Other Person to Contribute

One of the most important ways to take care of your conversation partner is to give them room to contribute by listening well to them and not monopolizing the conversation. Many people view conversations as simply a way to state their own opinion or tell their own story, and they feel no obligation to listen to the other person, writes King. This makes for an unrewarding experience for the other person, who feels unimportant and unheard.

To listen well and share the conversational space, King recommends the following: 

  1. Don’t craft your response while the other person is still talking. Listen actively with an open mind and only formulate your response once they’ve finished. 
  2. Show the other person that you’re listening. You can do this through engaged facial expressions, verbalizations, and body language
  3. Don’t stick to your point or story if the other person takes the conversation in another direction. Be willing to let go of what you wanted to say. 
  4. In general, try to talk less. People probably aren’t as interested in your life as you are and don’t care to hear about it endlessly.

Offer Thoughtful, Valuable Compliments

Another way to take care of your conversation partner and ensure they feel good in conversation is to offer thoughtful compliments. King writes that the compliments that ingratiate you most effectively with the recipient target something the recipient can control or something the recipient has actively decided to do. Such compliments feel more meaningful to the recipient than compliments about things they can’t control (like looks) because they validate a person’s choices and lifestyle.

Consider complimenting others on choices they’ve made to stand out from the crowd because these deliberate decisions reflect their identity and how they want to be perceived. A unique choice might be a nonconformist opinion, an unusual garment, a particular spiritual interest or affiliation. 

As an alternative to a traditional compliment, King suggests noticing people’s behaviors, habits, and idiosyncrasies and non-judgmentally drawing attention to them. This makes the other person feel noteworthy and seen.

Pose Thoughtful Questions That Prompt a Meaningful Contribution

Finally, King writes that, to make space for your conversation partner, you must master the art of asking questions that prompt meaningful, interesting answers. Such questions allow the other person to share thoughts, stories, and ideas that appeal to them, which makes them enjoy the conversation more. Here are some question types you can try out to encourage deep, enjoyable dialogue:

  • Open-ended questions.
  • Questions that enhance your understanding of the other person’s views.
  • Follow-up questions.
  • Talk about topics other than the two of you.
Better Small Talk: Patrick King’s Advice for Talking to Anyone

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Patrick King's "Better Small Talk" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Better Small Talk summary:

  • Why small talk is a critical part of any conversation
  • How mastering small talk can help you have more meaningful conversations
  • How to become a better conversationalist, storyteller, and listener

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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