Experts in the Media

Scott Taylor – Mamamia

Body Language, Statement Analysis, Deception Detection & Behaviour Profiling Expert, Security & Risk Specialist

How to nail small talk, according to an expert.

Small talk is often dismissed as surface-level.

But let’s face it — most of us wouldn’t kick off a conversation by asking a stranger to probe into their deepest fears. It’s why ‘small talk‘, which is defined as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters”, is actually so important.

How else could we bridge the foundation of trust without it?

Whether you’re in a work setting, at a family gathering, at a corporate event or in the smokers’ area of a nightclub at 3am, having the ability to communicate well about the trivial stuff is what makes us prime contenders for deeper connections.

Scott Taylor agrees.

For close to 30 years, he has built a career on being able to glean people’s true intentions through body language, facial micro-expressions, delivery style, and voice range.

The founder of Praesidium Risk and Resilience tells Mamamia there are plenty of ways to level up our communication skills and avoid bad conversation — even during small talk.

“Small talk is your first opportunity to connect and open the door to a deeper conversation, but I teach people that it’s also the first opportunity for you to pick up on the things that aren’t being said, but are showing in a person’s behaviour,” Taylor explains.

“You can get a look into their current emotional state through their speaking cadence. You can pick up on if they’re nervous or not. You can learn a lot even in simple, seemingly unmemorable conversations — [which can be] the biggest opportunity for something more meaningful.”

Taylor shared with us his advice on how to nail small talk. Every single time, in every single conversation.

1. Take up more space.

Some of the most confident people you’ll ever meet have a presence in any room. Part of that, Taylor says, comes down to said people taking up space with their personality and charisma.

“Taking up space, using your hands, [and] changing your posture to be straight can contribute to confidence,” he explains. “Confident people unconsciously occupy space and it’s obvious in how they move in a room.”

2. Put down the bloody phone.

Technology dominates us and almost everyone we know has a smartphone — but if you want to have a good conversation (even if it’s just small talk), you should put your phone face down in front of you, or pop it into your bag or pocket.

“In a world dominated by mobile phones, being present is vital,” Taylor says. “It shows you want to focus on your conversation and that you value the person you’re speaking to. Even if they’re a stranger, it’s a sign of respect.”

Under stress, our body releases the hormone cortisol, which impacts our ability to communicate, says Taylor.

“Your lips dry out and so does your mouth. Your hands get clammy, too,” the expert tells us. “So you essentially have to put yourself in a position during a conversation that tricks your body into not feeling stressed. Sit down or put your feet up or do whatever else [you need to]. It’s the same as taking up space — your body doesn’t know the difference because you’re putting it in [what feels like] a stress-free situation.”

It’s simply a fake it ’til you make it vibe, but Taylor says it’s not the only way to fight nerves or stress when making small talk with strangers. If you want to build up confidence quickly, he adds, it’s key to remember that everyone has some “element of nervousness” at all times.

4. Follow F.O.R.M.

There are a couple of different ways to prepare for conversations. But there’s one method in particular that takes the cake.

“You don’t need to be overly intelligent, just interesting,” Taylor says. “So skim over news sites before you go out. Find some interesting topics and understand everyone has their own interests and values.”

He says his favourite method of communication is F.O.R.M, which stands or Family, Occupation, Recreation and Motivation.

“These are the conversation starters you need,” he explains. “Have one or two of your own items under the first three headings and then find a motivation to use them.”

“Know one or two points that you’re comfortable sharing about yourself. You could show photos and say, ‘Here’s my family,’ or ‘What you do?’ and perhaps ‘What do you like to do in your spare time?'” he continues. “And there are questions around others that you can ask as well. This is a safe, easy space for people to build from.”

5. Embrace the quiet moments.

“Don’t be afraid of silence,” Taylor explains. “Some of the best conversations you’ll ever have include silence because you need a moment to consider your response.”

He adds that, if anything, silence is a benefit. “People can take it as the conversation being important to you because you need time to think about what is being said.”

6. Avoid awkward moments by mastering ‘transitional bridging’.

Sometimes, when jumping from one conversation to another, the transition can feel a little… clumsy. But there’s a way to skirt around that, and it’s by using a transitional bridge.

“It takes a little practice but you just need to have some sentences prepped that you can pull out when you think the conversation needs to take a different path,” Taylor explains. “They can be your preset.”

You can use phrases like these:

“You made me think of…”

“I want to speak to you about…”

“That reminds me…”

“Please remind me to bring this conversation up later..”

If you want to get better at this, Taylor tells the people he trains to think of two or three different subjects, which could be people, places or things, and figure out how to bridge from one to the other.

For example… transitioning a conversation from Mariah Carey to cavoodles.

You might say, “You know, I love Mariah Carey and I was literally listening to her in the park the other day. You know what, I actually saw my favourite breed of dog, a cavoodle, when I was there…”

7. Expand the everyday situations.

There is literally an opportunity to get better at small talk in every situation — whether you’re on the bus, ordering a coffee or buying groceries. “Have a conversation with people at the grocery store, at the petrol station, while you’re buying meat from the deli, when you’re lining up to pay for an item,” Taylor suggests. “Lead every conversation with a question and you’ll find you’re communicating better as your interactions go on.”

Of course, this is all a process. We can’t be experts straightaway. But it’s important to remember, as Taylor notes, that conversations are the gateway to meaningful, fulfilling connections.

“There is beauty in communication. It’s what we crave and if you’re fully present for it, you’ll see the beauty for yourself too.”