The Art of Conversation

Some people really enjoy social events - they are not the least bit daunted by a room full of strangers, find it easy to chat to other people and are not at all intimidated when faced with getting themselves a drink, or helping themselves to snacks or food at the buffet table.

For other people, however, the mere thought of having to attend a social event is enough to get their hearts racing and their hands sweaty with anxiety. They make every excuse to avoid having to attend social events, and would much rather stay home and stare at the walls. The thing these people dread the most is having to make conversation with strangers – because they 'never know what to say' and 'know' they will make a fool of themselves!

Being a good conversationalist is an art, and it is an absolute pleasure to engage in conversation with someone who has mastered this art. On the other hand, there is nothing worse at a party than being trapped by someone who either has nothing to say, or who drones on and on, and from whom you cannot escape!

The good news is that with some basic knowledge of how to be a good conversationalist - and a little practice - YOU can master the art of conversation.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Choose to have a positive attitude about the occasion

If you think the function that you have been invited to, is going to be boring, it probably will be. But if think that it will be a pleasant experience and it will give you the opportunity to meet someone new and interesting to talk to, you will probably enjoy the occasion. So make up your mind that you are going to enjoy yourself and that you will meet someone pleasant and interesting.

Have the intention to ‘add’ something to the function

Too often when we go to a party we expect everyone else to make sure that we have a good timeWe expect to be introduced to others; we expect to be entertained and we expect to be served food and drinks. And if this doesn’t happen we moan about what a boring party it was.

Don’t go to the function expecting to sit back and have everyone run around YOU. Go with the intention of doing two things:

The first is that you will take responsibility for your own enjoyment and the second is that you will try to help other people have an enjoyable time too.

There are quite a few things you can do to achieve this. You could:

  • Go up to someone else standing alone and introduce yourself and start a conversation – and of course I am going to tell you how to do this.
  • Offer to get someone a drink or invite them to come with you to the buffet table.
  • Invite someone standing alone to join your group or make it easy for them to approach the group.
  • Take up the host / hostesses call to be seated or to help yourself to food, so that others follow your lead. There is nothing worse for the hostess than watching her food get ruined while desperately asking people to help themselves.

Remember it is good manners to take your cue from your host or hostess and not from everyone around you. It is bad manners to force your host or hostess to serve themselves before you. Men, this especially applies to you – ladies first, except when it is your hostess.

In other words, help the host / hostess make the event a success by ensuring people feel comfortable and enjoy themselves, but don’t take over the running of the event!

Plan a few conversational starters

Have a few ideas in your head that you can use to start a conversation. They must be simple things that are light and easy for anyone to talk about. Remember that you are striving for light conversation – not a heavy intellectual discussion.

The most important guideline for making conversation comes from Oscar Wilde. He said:

“Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing” 

So have a handful of light, easy conversation starters ready to use if you need them – but – and this is important - make them sound totally natural and unplanned.

I have a friend – I’ll call him Bob – he’s a very dear friend, but he really lacks social skills. You can tell that he plans what to say before he goes out, because he never quite pulls it off. He never sounds natural.

I was once invited to a friend’s birthday dinner at a restaurant, but because I had to attend a work function I arrived about half an hour late. Everyone knew I was going to be late, so that was not a problem, but you know what’s it like…you rush in all out of breath and you just want to is greet everyone , sit down and have a chance to read the menu - so that you can put in your order and catch up with everyone else. Just as I picked up my menu to do that, Bob turns to me and says “Oh Claire, I really must tell you about my new lecturing job!” and launched in! “Nooooo! Just leave me alone! Now is not the time to trot out your prepared conversation!”

So yes, plan conversation starters, but use them naturally and appropriately! 

It is quite acceptable to use all the obvious conversation starters. If you are at a wedding, for example, you can talk about the couple, the venue, the décor, the food and the guests. You can ask questions or make comments…

"How do you know the bride & groom?" Of course you wouldn’t say “bride and groom” you would use their names – “Sally and John”.

“Do you know where Miriam and Thando are going on honeymoon?”

“This venue is very special. I have never been here before. Have you?”

“Look at those flowers – aren’t they beautiful? Lilies are my favourite.”

If you are at a birthday party you could ask about the person whose birthday it is, “Where did you and Salma meet?” or “How long have you known Joseph?”

On any occasion you can talk about current events – what’s happening locally, nationally or internationally. Remember you want light conversation – not political debates or intellectual arguments, so you don’t have to know anything about the topic at all.

It is very easy to do…just think about what’s happening in the news and ask:

What do you think of ….latest event in the news?

Have you heard about…. latest event in the news?

You can mention something you saw or heard. For example you could say: “I heard such an interesting interview on the radio today ….and tell the story”. Keep it short and to the point.

Use the posters on the streetlights to start conversations. Newspaper headlines, adverts for events.

“I see they are advertising…x, are you going to go?”

“I read a headline that said…x …do you know the story?”

And of course you can always talk about the weather….

 “How are you enjoying the weather at the moment?”

Be an interesting person

To be an interesting person you must be an interested person – interested in people, new ideas, and your environment.

Read, listen, think...

  • Read to widen your general knowledge – not just your business and hobbies. Be able to talk a little bit about a lot of things.
  • Listen to what is being said by others, TV, radio etc.
  • Think about what you have read and heard – has the new information changed your attitude or motivated you to action? 

Keep an open mind on all debateable topics. “File away” interesting stories and information to bring up in conversation.

My grandmother – who lived to almost 90 could talk to anyone between 4years old and 104 years old and be interesting and relevant. She was always having visitors pop in for a cup of tea and a chat. She was an inspiration.

Pay special attention to making a good impression

First impressions are important and we must pay special attention to making a good impression. Dress to give yourself confidence. If you know you look good you will feel good. Phone ahead of the function and ask for the dress code if necessary. If you are not sure what to wear, dress up rather than down. It is much nicer for people to be admiring you smart outfit than saying behind your back. “Oh, is that the best they can do?”

Create a favourable impression so people will want to talk to you

When you enter the venue – it can be a small room in somebody’s home or a huge ball room at a hotel - command interest by using your body language. We are all attracted to people who look friendly and confident and if you come across that way, people will want to meet you and talk to you. Even if you are shy and nervous you just ‘Fake it ‘til you make it!’

So what do you do? As you enter the room you do a few things simultaneously:

  • Pause in the entrance way and look around. See who is there.
  • Have an open posture – so don’t block yourself off in any way
  • Smile - conveying confidence and optimism. You are pleased to be there – which makes everyone else feel good.
  • Make eye contact with people – conveying confidence and credibility.
  •  Have an energetic posture – spine straight, relaxed.

Of course you then need to keep on using both your verbal as well as your non –verbal language to appear friendly, confident and interested in the other person. If you show interest in somebody else, they will show interest in you. It’s the law of mutual attraction - we like people who like us, and we show we like someone by paying attention to them.

Look at the person speaking, show your interest by a smile, a nod of the head or an encouraging remark like, “Oh I see,” or “That sounds interesting.” Face person who is speaking and lean slightly forward. It shows you are interested. Your attentive listening will give the speaker confidence and encourage them to keep the conversation going.

Pay attention to your voice. Modulate your volume according to the conversation, environment and occasion. There is nothing worse than the loudmouth whose conversation dominates the room because they are speaking too loudly. That’s just as bad is the person you can’t hear properly because they are speaking too quietly.

Bring out the best in yourself and others: Be positive, optimistic and enthusiastic

Too often conversations begin with fault-finding, or complaints such as “This rotten weather is dreadful” or “The food here is awful” or “The crime in South Africa is getting out of hand”. This kind of negative conversation is why so many social gatherings are boring. People imitate and tend to follow conversational patterns. If you say you don’t like sports cars, salami or music festivals you will start a flood of “I don’t likes…” that will be difficult to stop.

So focus on the positive. Instead of saying “I hate mugs”, say “I prefer to drink tea out of china cups.”

Use positive words. Instead of sayingWon’t you please pour me a drink”, rather say, “Please would you pour me a drink .”

Instead of saying Don’t you think…?” Change it to, “What do you think of …?”

Don’t gossip, grumble and make belittling remarks. If someone else tries to draw you into gossip, cut it off immediately.

I learnt how to do this from a captain of a yacht I worked on. Whenever one of the crew tried to draw him into a negative conversation about one of the crew, he would just respond with a simple, “Well there you go.”

Another way to cut off gossip or complaining, is to be really quick and take the theme of the gossip and use it to turn the conversation into something more positive. So if someone is gossiping about a friend’s shabby house, you could quickly say, “Talking about houses, have any of you heard about that new housing estate being built? It sounds wonderful.” It is fairly obvious what you are doing, but it is not offensive.

You can also be quite blatant about changing the conversation. You can say something like: “Well isn’t this a miserable conversation. Let’s talk about something a little more cheerful. I hear that the new show at the theatre has been getting rave reviews. Has anyone seen it?”

Never be sarcastic, aggressive, passive-aggressive or manipulative. They always bring down a conversation. If you want to know more about these communication styles, read my article ‘The Five Communications Styles’ or listen to my talk “To Think Own Self be True - The Confident YOU!”.

Give everyone a chance to speak

Never ever monopolise the conversation. Even if you are interesting and people are listening to you, give others a chance to have their say. Most people will enjoy themselves more if they feel that they too have been heard.

Remember that some people will happily interrupt if they have something to say – these are the extraverts - but other people – the introverts - need to be invited to speak before they will contribute anything – even if they have something really worthwhile to say. So invite them to share their opinion.

If you are the one dominating the conversation all you have to say is something like “but enough about what I think, I would love to hear your opinions”, or “Well I’m speaking too much. Sarah what do you think about…”

If someone else is dominating the conversation, you can still give others a chance to talk by quickly taking the first gap and saying something like, “David you are being very quiet, what is your opinion?” or “Roger, I can hear that you feel strongly about this. I would love to know what the others think.” And open up a space for someone else to contribute.

Remember that a good host or hostess will ensure everyone gets a chance to have their say, but you don’t have to leave the responsibility to your hosts, you can play your part too.

Choose a topic that is meaningful to all

Never have a conversation about a topic that is only meaningful to a few of you. So, for example, if five of you are chatting in a group and only three of you work together, do not start talking about your colleagues at work because only the three of you will know what is going on. The other two will be excluded from the conversation. They will have no idea what you are talking about and they will not be able to contribute to the conversation. It is rude and boring.

This happened to me at small party many years ago. I was studying for my Master’s Degree at the University of Natal, Durban. Three of the other girls were studying at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg and shortly after dinner they got into a conversation about some of their lecturers which went on for the rest of the evening. Of course I had no idea what they were talking about and neither did another chap who was also present. Nobody even attempted to include us in the conversation and it was dead boring. I left as soon as I could, without being rude, and I have never forgotten that dreadful evening!

When someone joins a group already in conversation, include them both physically and mentally

When someone new joins the group make a point of ‘inviting them in’ by consciously moving to create a gap for them to join the circle. Then shift your body so it is not turned directly away from anybody. Briefly tell them what the conversation is about, so they know what the topic is at least and can immediately feel part of it. For example, “Ah Peter, come and join us, John is just telling us about his trip to China.”

If you have never met the person before, introduce yourself and the people you are with, as soon as possible - even if it means interrupting a conversation. So you could catch their eye and say…

Please come and join us. My name is Claire and this is Fatima and Mohammed.” What is your name?” When they have given you their name, you can say something like: “It’s lovely to meet you Miriam, Mohammed was just telling us about the holiday he is planning in Alaska. Go on Mohammed.

Make the most of other people’s attempts to make conversation

We have probably all been in the situation when making conversation with someone else feels like squeezing blood from a stone. It’s excruciating! Don’t ever be the stone!  Never give a one word answer or an answer that stops further conversation.

Think of conversation as a tennis game. Each participant should lob information back and forth. Each statement or question should advance the subject discussed and should excite, inspire and challenge the other person to give their pertinent response.

You do not have to stay on the same topic – in fact as Oscar Wilde said it is preferable to keep the conversation moving from one topic to another. Remember he said that

“Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing”

In psychology we have a term called “free association” – it is when we allow a client to move from one thought to another without any restraint. In conversation you can allow one thought to lead you to another, which makes you think of something else and so on. Conversation should move lightly and naturally, flowing from one thought to the next.

Learn to ask open ended questions rather than closed questions. An open ended question is the type of question where the other person will have to answer by giving you information, rather than by saying a simple yes or no. For example if someone tells you they saw a play at the theatre the previous night, by asking, “How did you find the play?” you will promote conversation, whereas, by asking “Did you enjoy the play?” you could get a yes or no answer that stops the conversation.

Suit your vocabulary to your listener

A good vocabulary enhances conversation. Stop using boring words like nice, great, thing and replace them with more precise and descriptive words. A good vocabulary is a sign of intelligence, but if you use a big word incorrectly it just makes you sound like an idiot, so never use words you don’t understand, or are not 100% sure of.

Adapt your conversation to the people you are speaking to and focus on making them feel comfortable and at ease. You should be able to talk to all types and levels of people - be they a child or adult, educated or uneducated, rich or poor, local or foreign - with equal ease and respect.

Remember that the truly intelligent person - mentally, socially and emotionally intelligent - does not prove he is intelligent by using big words and jargon. The truly intelligent person does have to prove anything. They adapt to the people they are with and are able to talk at the level of the people they are with, about things that interest those people without being patronising or condescending.

Listen… rather than just hear

Listen to what others say. There is a difference between listening and hearing. You can’t respond well unless you listen attentively and actively. And if you are listening properly the conversation will flow smoothly and the other person will feel good about themselves and so in turn feel good about you. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can get away with pretending to listen. You can’t. We all know when someone is pretending.

Focus on what they are saying as they are saying it. Don’t be thinking more about what you want to say next and of course never ever interrupt to tell your own story! There is nothing more boring than someone who keeps doing that.

Use the opportunity to learn – you already know all your own ideas and opinions. Listen to other people’s ideas and wisdom. Everybody has something to offer that we can learn. When you really listen to people you might be amazed at how interesting they can be. And as I said earlier, the more you listen the more interesting you will be.

When making introductions always add a little information about the person

When introducing a person, do not just give a name. Always give a little bit of information about each person so that they have something to start a conversation with after they have said “hello”. You want them to have something to say to each other even if you get called away.

For example:

“Peter, I would like you to meet Mary who is our most dedicated volunteer. She gives a great deal of her time to our organisation. Mary, Peter is the Chairman of the Board.” or

“Oh James, meet Sara, I know you two will have lots to talk about because Sara has just done a course in Scuba Diving. Sara, James is an advanced Scuba diver.”

I was once attending the launch of an art exhibition and Mark, a friend of mine, who is always trying to match-make me, introduced me to a man called Sean. He literally just told us each other’s name and left it at that. It was awful – I said “hi”, Sean said “hi” and that’s where it ended. There was this awful silence while Mark just stood beaming and looking at both of us. It was embarrassing. Fortunately we were saved from by the artist launching into her opening speech.

Use the power of the compliment

Compliments can be excellent conversation starters - we all love sincere praise. Men like compliments about what they do (their actions). So for example say “You chose a great tie to go with that shirt.” Women like compliments about how they are (their looks). So tell them “You look fabulous in that dress.”

If someone compliments you, acknowledge it so that the person giving you the compliment can feel good in return and then use the compliment to generate more conversation by adding information to your response. So if someone compliments you on your clothing, your response could be: “Oh thank you, how kind of you to say so. Yes, this shirt is one of my favourites; I got it while on holiday in Singapore.”This gives them the opportunity to pick up a conversation about Singapore and if they don’t pick up on it, you can.

Do not brush aside a compliment. It is rude. If you struggle to accept compliments read my article “Time to Accept a Compliment”.

Avoid boredom at all costs

Boredom can easily be spotted if you are looking for it – look for the glazed daze, stifled yawns, fidgeting and the desperate looking around for a means of escape!

If you are faced with someone who is bored by you, apologise in a light way, smile and change the topic by asking them a question. “I’m sorry. I can see I am boring you. I forget that not everybody is interested in border collies. So what are your interests?”

If they are boring, ask them a question. Questions direct the conversation into areas that you might find interesting. You could say: I am glad you loved that movie – how do you like theatre?


“Hearing about your axle grinder is interesting. What else do you do as a hobby?” or “What other interests do you have?” 

If they have been dominating the conversation, take your turn. “I must tell you about the strangest hobby I read about on the internet.”

If someone is going on and on about one heavy topic, you can change the subject gracefully by saying something like, “Well, I can see this is your passion, but I don’t want to get into a heavy discussion about politics / religion / dogs…. and change the subject. “What do you think of…” or say “Let’s go and get some food.”

If they are really boring make an excuse to leave. Excuses can be about needing the bathroom, helping the hostess, getting a drink or needing to mingle. So you could say something like:

Please excuse me, I really must go to the bathroom” …and leave immediately before they start talking again.


“I see Thandeka could do with some help, please excuse me.”


“Please excuse me, I have just seen someone I have not seen in a long time, I must go and chat to them before they think I’m avoiding them!”


“Well it has been enlightening chatting to you, but I guess it would be a good idea if we mingled with some of the other guests. Enjoy the party.”….and leave!


“I must just go and see that my husband / wife / friend is all right. Please excuse me.”

Practice your conversational skills

Making conversation is a learnt skill – with practice and effort you can master “The Art of Conversation” and you will be well liked for it!

Remember to just enjoy yourself

Although you do want to improve your conversation skills to gain the benefits of being a good conversationalist, remember to go out and just enjoy yourself. Other people are actually not watching to see if you make a fool yourself. They just want to have a good time too.