Making conversation is one of those things which can swing wildly from easy-peasy to near impossible, depending on the situation and the company you're in.
Among mates? No doubt you could talk for hours. At a conference where you're expected to network? Suddenly you're in the corner scrolling through cats of Instagram.
The good news is you're not alone. While, yes, there are some people out there who could coax titillating chat out of a door frame, there are many, many of us who find it far more difficult.
So where to begin?
1. Just say it
So much of striking up a conversation has to do with getting over your nerves of approaching someone in the first place. As outlined by radio show host Malavika Varadan in her TEDx Talk: "What's the worst that can happen? They won't talk to you? Well, they're not talking to you now.
"I truly believe the first word acts as a floodgate. Once you've said the first word, everything else just flows."
And while that might be a slightly optimistic account (we've all been in the situation where the conversation dries up after two or three minutes and we're left twiddling our thumbs), she does have a point. A conversation doesn't start itself: someone always has to take the first step.
2. Be positive
You know the saying 'we got off on the wrong foot'? By keeping your opening remarks and questions positive, you limit the chance of contracting foot in mouth disease.
For instance, say you're at a wedding and you say something negative about the best man's speech... only to find the person you're talking to is his friend/sibling/cousin/lover.
By at least starting off the conversation on a positive note, you have time to find out more about the person and how they fit into the situation, saving you from treading on anyone's toes.
3. Keep the questions open-ended
No doubt you've heard that piece of advice plenty of times before, but the fact of the matter is, asking questions which ultimately go nowhere is a trap we fall into again and again.
The trick? By keeping your questions simple (but open-ended), you are more likely to elicit a complicated and interesting response.
To borrow the words of writer and radio host Celeste Headlee: "If you put in a complicated question, you're going to get a simple answer out.
"Let them describe it. They're the ones that know. Try asking them things like, 'What was that like?' 'How did that feel?' Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you're going to get a much more interesting response."
Celeste Headlee talks at TEDxCreativeCoast in 2015.
4. Don't multi-task
This is another point made by Headlee in her TEDx talk (see above) -- and she doesn't just mean putting down your phone (though obviously, that too is important).
"I mean, be present, she says. Be in that moment. Don't think about your argument you had with your boss. Don't think about what you're going to have for dinner. If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don't be half in it and half out of it."
5. Find common ground
We've all been in that situation where we've been seated next to someone at a function who you have absolutely nothing in common with. But here's the secret: by the very nature of you being at the same event, that's already something you share.
Are you at a conference? If so, did you listen to the same speaker? What did he/she think of the presentation?
If it's a wedding, how do they know the bride/groom? What do you they reckon the first dance song will be?
And look, if all else fails... you can always mention the weather.
6. Don't make sh*t up
Everyone enjoys a good anecdote or a story that maaaaay have stretched the limits of what actually happened, but nobody likes a straight-out liar.
If you're stuck for something to say, don't make up something that didn't happen to you. It's not impressive, it's sad. (Have you not SEEN 'Romy and Michele's High School Reunion'? Learn from their mistakes.)
Have faith in the fact who you are and what you've experienced is interesting enough to hold someone's attention.
Plus, by staying true to yourself, you don't run the risk of being outed later.
7. Stick to the point
You know what details are interesting? What you did. How you felt. What happened next.
What isn't interesting is whether or not it took place on a Tuesday afternoon, or at 3pm as opposed to 4pm.
Don't get bogged down in the specifics if they don't matter in the big picture.
8. There is such a thing as TMI
Such as your medical or sexual history. Or what you dreamed last night. Trust us. No one wants to know.
This is undoubtedly the most important of all the above, so we've left it to (almost) last.
Everyone can talk, but not that many people can listen -- and a conversation should be both.
Referring once again to Headlee's address, she says: "A conversation requires a balance between talking and listening and somewhere along the way we lost that balance."
Note that listening doesn't mean waiting for your turn to talk, or actively showing how much you're listening with vigorous head nodding and excessive eye contact.
As Headlee puts it: "There is no reason to learn how to show you're paying attention if, in fact, you are paying attention."
10. Know when to give up
Hopefully if you've followed at least some of these tips, you're elbow-deep in scintillating conversation right now.
But look, sometimes things don't work out. Sometimes the person you're talking to is scanning the room behind you for someone else to chat to, or perhaps, despite your best efforts, the chat has simply dried up and there's nothing else to do but abort.
In which case, try to make a graceful exit.
This can be done by introducing them to someone else, getting some drink or food, or asking for their business card or contact information.
However this isn't an excuse to go and hide in the toilet -- use this opportunity to start up a conversation with someone new. You never know where it might take you.
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