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Be a Great Conversation Starter: Talk to Strangers with Ease

Mark Tyrrell
Article by Mark Tyrrell
Therapist trainer of 25 years
Co-founder of Hypnosis Downloads

9 winning ways to make new friends

"Don't talk to strangers!"

To which a pedantic (and annoyingly bright) seven-year-old might reply: "What, never! How about when I'm forty; at a party or having a job interview?"

Advice, like most things, is relative. Being totally at ease striking up conversations with new people in social or business settings hugely improves life as you simultaneously have more fun and create more opportunities.

But what if the prospect of starting a conversation leaves you feeling weaker at the knees than a jellyfish on stilts?

Prefer to watch instead?

"What will I talk about? I don't know what to say! What if they hate me!"

Shyness may have gotten you into the habit of always waiting for the other person to start the conversation. But what if they're shy, too? Come on, let's change things.

What stops people from starting conversations?

Fear, especially unnecessary fear, blocks opportunity. If you've always tended to wait until new people start chatting to you, then it may feel overwhelming to reverse that habit.

So what do people fear? Well, often they fear saying the 'wrong thing', but what does that mean? Actually, it's not so much what you say - within reason - but how you come across when you're saying it. Sure, confidently telling a stranger they have a nose the size of Trinidad is unlikely to win immediate friendship however pleasant your demeanour.

But the fact remains that when you're relaxed and confident, you'll transmit that comfort to the person(s) with whom you're communicating. This means anything you say is more likely to feel right (within sensible limits).

If you ever feel afraid to start conversations with strangers, put the following ideas into practice and ramp up your conversation-starter self-confidence even with the most dour of people.

1) Smile and the whole world smiles with you

Before approaching your victim - sorry, target - no, err, imminent conversational partner, don't keep nervously looking at them as if they are a small pool at the bottom of a huge dive you're about to take. Smile and relax. You're not 'taking the plunge' or risking everything; you're just being sociable.

Research (1) shows people will likely want to talk to you if you are smiling. Don't grin manically at people like a prom queen on acid, but a gentle general smile will instantly make the prospect of talking to you more appealing. Also, when listening to others speaking, smile (unless they're relating tales of their latest messy divorce). And remember...

2) Having a conversation is a mutual experience

People who worry about not knowing what to say forget that when you communicate with someone else, you have the use of two brains. It's not so much: "What am I going to say?" as: "What are we going to say?"

Initiating a conversation doesn't mean carrying the whole thing. If you instigate a bonfire by lighting a match, then it burns. But it's not you personally burning the wood. You've just kicked things off.

If I approach someone socially, I don't wonder what I'm going to talk about; I'm curious about what they're going to talk about.

Introduce yourself and shake their hand: "Hi, I'm Mark. And you are...?" Remember, when you approach someone for a chat, it's not just you; it's the two of you. And...

3) Show interest

A relative of mine had an almost military style of socially interrogating people. "How's business? Is it profitable? Where are you living now? Is that expensive? When was your first sexual experience? What's the capital of Ecuador?" It felt like an examination.

But gentle, not too probing, questions show you're interested (and people find interested people interesting). Asking someone about themselves gives them the opportunity to help the conversation get going.

Start by asking them about themselves as connected to the situation. In this way, you initiate conversation by getting them to speak. "So, you know Jenny, is that through work...?" Then you can tell them how you know Jenny. This is fine as some kind of opener, but the conversation could end there if you don't take heed of the next tip.

4) Open up the conversation

If we don't light a fire in the right way, it may not take - and it's the same with conversation. Keep it going by asking open questions that require more than a yes/no answer. For example:

You: "So, you know Jenny?"
Stranger: "Yes..."
You: "That's cool... really... good... ahem..." [nervously look at watch]

Hopefully, they'll say more than just 'yes'; but just to make sure, ask them a question that opens up the conversation:

You: "Jenny chose this place tonight; I really love this bar. What kinds of places do you usually socialize?"

Unless they're totally closed to conversation (in which case, move on; you deserve better), they'll give you a much more detailed response than a yes or no. But when you're talking...

5) Self-edit

Imagine watching a James Bond movie that showed our suave super-spy being put on hold for half an hour whilst trying to phone someone at his bank, followed by an hour's shopping in the high street. Great film! We don't want all the mundane detail; we want to see the good bits.

Being a great conversationalist is as much about leaving out stuff; as much exclusion as inclusion. No one likes to be regaled with masses of detail about the car insurance form you filled out that morning (unless you can make it particularly amusing). If you see the other person's eyes glaze, notice rigor mortis setting in, or suspect they may be doing a closed-mouth, face-expanding yawn, you might just be committing slow boredom homicide.

Brevity, it's been said, is the soul of wit. Edit! Don't bore with detail. Instead, ask yourself, "What does this person need to know?"

6) Do use humour

If you find something funny (and it's not their appearance), then say so. People appreciate humour (and if they don't, maybe you need to be talking to someone else).

Let the humour flow naturally from the conversation rather than using memorized gags from your Bumper Book of Jokes circa 1982. Laughing together builds a sense of intimacy. Of course, if they don't find your amusing quips hysterical, there's clearly something clinically wrong with them.

7) Don't rely on the booze

Drunkenly buttonholing a stranger, breathing beer at them whilst shouting haltingly into their ear might feel perfectly fine at the time, but you risk making the object of your inebriated attentions feel they've been hijacked by an excitable baboon. The problem being that when we drink, we forget the law of diminishing returns. Beyond a certain point (which can be reached with just a glass or two), yet more booze will not make you more socially adept - quite the reverse.

8) Don't take it personally

If after you've attempted to get a conversation going the other person really doesn't seem to want to talk, then don't take it personally. As long as you aren't:

  • Forgetting to ask open questions
  • Obsessively interrogating
  • Failing to self-edit
  • Drunkenly buttonholing

then they must just be having an off night - or perhaps they need to learn a few conversational skills themselves.

And finally...

9) Get your conversation-starter mindset

To have the confidence to start conversations, it's a great idea to train your brain beforehand. Use self-hypnosis to visualize (and so instil the pattern in your mind of) yourself being calm, relaxed, friendly, and coherent when approaching new people.

The more you relax with starting conversations, the more self-confident you'll be generally. As they say: "Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet."


  1. Research has found that we find people who smile and look directly at us more attractive. And people are 86% more likely to strike up conversations with strangers in the street if they are smiling. Claire Conway and colleagues at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland found that both men and women deemed faces looking straight at them to be more attractive and more likeable, even if the faces looked disgusted. Though unsurprisingly, there was a greater preference for smiles.
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Communication Skills