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The Topic Of Conversation

With spring in bloom, it's the season for breezy cocktail parties, weddings and graduations. But if you'd rather bury your nose in a strawberry daiquiri than stir up small talk, help is on the way.

Dr. Bernardo J. Carducci, author of "The Pocket Guide to Successful Small Talk" and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, joined The Early Show's Life Matters segment Wednesday with tips on how to make a conversation anywhere.

Small talk is not small, according to Carducci. It's huge in business and romantic lives. He says we are losing the ability to make small talk because of technology. Today's conversations can be very quick. Also, you can go on a Web site and chat about your favorite topic and you'll find 300 other people who will "talk" about it with you. Carducci says we're losing our ability to connect with new people.

Research shows small talk is not random. There are five basic steps that a conversation follows, which include: Setting Talk (opening line); Personal Introduction (name); Fishing for Topics; Building on the Topic; and Favorite Topic. He says successful small talkers follow the protocol, and unsuccessful small talkers don't.

Once you are aware of the five steps of small talk, Carducci claims, you will never have a conversation the same way again.

Here are the steps he advises to take to help a conversation:

  • Setting Talk or Opening Line: The best opening line reflects a shared setting or environment, says Carducci. The best opening line is something simple that reflects shared experience: "Gee , nice weather we're having." What that says is, not that you can't come up with anything better but, it tells someone I'm willing to talk to you, are you willing to talk to me?" If they say: "Yes. It is," they have signaled they're ready to talk to you too.
  • Personal Introduction: This conversation starts with stating your name and what you do for a living. Carducci says 90 percent of the time, this is what people want to know. Personal introduction is designed to move the conversation forward. What you want to do is provide enough information so that people can then begin to say: "OK, what can I talk to this person about?" Bad small talkers don't introduce themselves with enough information.

    A good small talker will introduce himself by saying: "My name is Ralph. I work at the mall. I sell cell phones, and you can't believe why people come to me for cell phones!" That kind of introduction leads someone to say: "Tell me a story?" You can also use humor during the greeting.

  • Fishing for Topics: Throw a topic out for conversation, says Carducci. If someone throws something on the table, your responsibility is two fold, either respond and support or throw out something else. Bad small talkers don't do either. So, be sure to provide an alternative topic of conversation. You may have to throw out a topic more than once, until someone hooks on to it.
  • Building on the Topic: Once a topic is chosen for the conversation, the next step is to build on it. If your talking to someone who said he was in Florida last week for vacation, you can say something like: "Hey! My buddy went to this great Cuban restaurant in Florida." The conversation will build, says Dr. Carducci, and it may take new directions in topics, such as food or traveling.
  • Ending a Conversation: Dr. Carducci says to end a conversation, you must always signal you're leaving or that the conversation is ending soon. For instance, say something like: "Gee, I'll have to leave in a minute." That signals to the other person that they have to finish their story. Also, try to highlight the conversation to let people know you were listening. Say something like, "I really enjoyed that information you gave me about Florida." Also, express gratitude, let them know that you truly enjoyed talking to them: "I really appreciate this information you gave me." Set the stage for further information, and conversation, for instance: "Next time I go to Florida, I'll call you and you can give me more ideas. Do you have a card?"

This is connecting, not just conversation, Carducci says. Now, you have a connection with that person, and can build upon the initial conversation the next time you meet.

During conversations, you may notice awkward silences. However, Carducci says silences are not as long as you think, and people are processing the information discussed. So don't let those silences scare you.

Carducci warns those who believe alcohol makes them more accessible to conversation. He says alcohol does not make conversations better because critical evaluation decreases when drinking. Therefore, it's not a good idea to drink and small talk.

The big biggest mistake when making small talk is latching on to a conversation, says Carducci. Locking into a topic may make you feel confident, so you keep talking and talking. That's called favorite topic and it's a conversation killer.

It is alright to stay on a topic of conversation, says Carducci, as long as you stop and check yourself when you are going off on your favorite topic. Bad small talkers see themselves as talking, but they don't realize they're dominating conversation, he explains. Be sensitive to the un-said. You have to give people a chance to shift the conversation away from your favorite topic, if they want to.

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