Want to “wow” at your next dinner party?  Know the art of great conversations!

Photo:  Kris Hoet

If you experience a little nervousness about how to make small talk at social events such as dinner parties, you are not alone.  “You don’t need to be extroverted to be a great conversationalist; you need to care about other people,” says Penelope Trunk, called the “world’s most influential guidance counselor” by Inc. Magazine.

Here at Zoko, we’ve researched tips and tricks from networking experts to how-to websites (even the Shyness Research Institute!) and boiled down the lessons into three easy steps:

1) Pay attention to your body language and tone of voice. 

How you say it is just as important as what you say.  Do you appear friendly and approachable?  (Hint:  Smile and keep a relaxed posture, with your arms uncrossed.)  Are you making appropriate eye contact?  (It helps you appear more confident.)  Be an active listener.  (Hint:  Nod.  Insert acknowledgments such as “Yes,” “I see,” and “That’s interesting.”  Paraphrase when appropriate.)

2) Show you are interested in others.

Dale Carnegie once said, “It’s much easier to become interested in others than it is to convince them to be interested in you.”  Asking others about themselves is a simple way to show your interest in them.  You can use your immediate environment as a simple place to start.  For example, if you are at a dinner party, you can ask them if they like to cook or how they know some of the other attendees.  Be mindful not to come across as though you are interrogating them and try to avoid questions that result in one-word answers.  Establishing things you have in common is an easy way to keep the conversation flowing.

3)  Listen carefully and then relate.

Don’t make the cliché mistake of using the time when the other person is talking to think about what you are going to say next – really listen.  Then, try to relate.  For example, you can answer the question yourself, even if the other person doesn’t ask you, or you can tell as story that relates to the topic you are discussing.  Think of this like you are part of an improv comedy group.  According to the rules of improv comedy, the players should always accept what their partner offers and then add new information.  (This is the “Say Yes – And” rule.)

So … That’s it!  Simple, right?  Now, here are a few tips to help you be successful when you take the above steps:

1)  Prepare

By doing just a bit of preparation in advance of your event, you can feel more confident when you engage in small talk.  If you only remember one thing from this blog post, remember to brush up on current events before your event!  Be sure to skim both national and local news, and don’t forget to include some pop culture.  PsychCentral.com suggests keeping track of new and interesting experiences you have.  Some advance thinking about things you enjoyed recently – such as travel you took, a good book you read, a live performance you saw, or a new restaurant in town you tried – will make it easier to recall them at a moment when you need a conversation trigger.  According to eHow.com, “current events, movies and books, food and restaurants, music, psychology, and hobbies are all rich sources of conversational topics.”

2) Stay positive

It’s a party – keep the conversation light and upbeat.  No one wants to go out for a fun evening and get stuck listening to someone’s woes or complaints.  Develop your sense of humor.  Even if you don’t have a knack for telling funny stories, you can be open to sharing a laugh when others have something funny to say.

3) Be aware of yourself

Without being self-conscious, try to view your interactions from a third-party’s perspective.  If you don’t like what you hear or feel the conversation lagging, quickly adjust your tone or transition to another topic.  For example, if you notice yourself droning on or monopolizing the conversation, adjust by keeping your comments to-the-point and relatively brief.  If a conversation is lagging, eHow.com suggests making a smooth transition by mentioning something related to the current topic.  For example, if the original conversation was about American Idol, you can transition by talking about another show, such as Dancing With The Stars.

4) Practice

The only way to get comfortable with making conversation – especially with new acquaintances – is to practice.  Bernardo Carducci, director of Indiana University Southeast’s Shyness Research Institute, states, “Building confidence is like learning to swing a golf club. It boils down to knowing what the critical skills are and practicing them.  Even Tiger Woods still practices for hours every day.”

There you have it.  You can practice your way into becoming a great conversationalist by attending lots of dinner parties … as if you needed another reason.