How to start a conversation

How to Start a Conversation

By David Morin | Last updated: January 18 2019

The complete guide on how to start talking to someone in everyday life, at work, in school, over text or online.

Today, I teach social skills for a living. Perhaps you’ve seen me in Business Insider and Lifehacker. But a few years ago, I had NO CLUE how to start a conversation – especially when I had to start talking to someone I‘d just met.

In this guide, I’ll cover how to start talking to people in everyday life, at work or in school, or with that guy or girl you have a crush on. I’ll also cover how to start a conversation over text or online.

[Go here if you want general advice on how to be more social.]

These are my 9 conversation secrets.

  1. How to start talking to someone in day to day life
  2. Starting a conversation with someone you’ve said hi to before
  3. Starting a conversation when people expect you to talk to them
  4. Talking to friends or people you already know
  5. Topics and subjects to get the conversation going when your mind goes blank
  6. How to start a conversation with someone online or over text/sms/chat
  7. Keep the conversation interesting using the IFR-Method
  8. How to start talking to a guy or girl you like
  9. How to start a conversation with someone you just met, even if it makes you nervous

1. How to start talking to someone in day to day life

How to start talking to someone in the office

We make observation all the time, without even thinking about it! In this step, I show how you can use those observations to start a conversation, even with a complete stranger. 

Use this method to start talking to people you come across in everyday life.

Later, I’ll give you specific conversation starters for social events (parties, dinners, etc).

Examples of “everyday life” situations:

  • Ending up next to someone you don’t know in the school hallway or cafeteria
  • Ending up next to someone you’ve never talked to before in the lunchroom at work
  • Wanting to say something to a cute guy or girl you come across

Here, people aren’t prepared for someone to start talking to them out of the blue.

It would be too direct to, for example, out of nowhere ask someone how they are doing. We need to “ease in” first.

Here, we want to ask a sincere question about the situation we’re in.

You can use this to talk to a guy or girl you have a crush on, or just anyone you want to make friends with.

For example, last week I ended up next to a girl on the train.

I had been wondering if they were serving snacks on board. That’s a PERFECT thing to ask, because as long as the question is sincere, it will feel natural:

“Excuse me, do you know if they serve snacks here?”

She responded something like “Hmm. Yeah they should!”. And it was natural for me to ask a follow-up question. “Good. Do you take this train often?”.

More on follow-up questions in step 7.

Examples of spontaneous questions:

Ending up next to someone you want to talk to on the bus stop, the train or a plane

– “Do you know when the next bus will leave?”
– “Do you know how to make the seats recline?
– “Are you reading that magazine or can I borrow it?”
– “Do you know when we’ll arrive in Boston?”

Ending up next to someone from another department at work

– “Is that Whiting you have there or what kind of fish is that?”
– “Is the salad good?”
– “Where did you get that Snapple?”

Waiting with someone else in the corridor for the class to start

– “Is this the physics lecture hall?”
– “Do you know what time this class starts?”
– “Do you remember the last name of the professor?”

Don’t fabricate questions. Instead, listen to the questions that are already in your head, like I did at that train.

When you want to talk to a stranger, remember this: Ask a spontaneous question about the situation!

The person often just gives you a short reply. But that’s OK! Now, we’ve “unlocked the door” and can follow up by asking something about them, like I explain in step 7.

[What type of social overthinker are you? Take this quiz and get a custom report based on your unique personality and goals. Start improving your confidence, your conversation skills, or your ability to bond – in less than an hour. Start the quiz]

2. Starting a conversation with someone you’ve said hi to before

Start talking to a friend

Use the “positive remarks” method to effortlessly start a conversation with someone you’ve said hi to before. 

This is my go-to method with people I’ve only had short interactions with before like a “Hi” or a “How are you?”.

Examples of situations:

  • Ending up next to someone you barely know at a friend’s dinner
  • Someone from another class who you nod to in the hallway at times
  • That cute guy or girl working at the cafe where you get your morning coffee

Here, I make a positive remark about something I see.

Examples of positive remarks:

“The Salmon looks delicious!”
“This place looks great since the renovation!”
“It smells so good from the food!”

(I’m not making any positive remarks about them, like “I like your dress”, as that can feel too personal this early on.)

But David, my head goes blank! How do I come up with things to say?

Here’s an exercise you can to do right now:

Look around your room, and see what positive remarks you can come up with about what you see. Here’s what I come up with after just looking around my room, as I write this guide:

“I love indoor plants. It makes the room much nicer.”
“That’s a nice design for a kitchen.”
“That scented candle smells nice.”

But David, these statements are just meaningless small talk!

What we’re doing here i signaling to people “I’m not a threat, and I’m open for making conversation if you are”. It’s not about what you say – it’s about what you convey.

That’s why it’s important that it’s a positive remark. It shows that we’re friendly.

[What type of social overthinker are you? Take this quiz and get a custom report based on your unique personality and goals. Start the quiz]

3. Starting a conversation when people expect you to talk to them

How to start a conversation at a mingle

Use the Get to Know-method if you’re expected to get to know people. This means dinners, parties, mingles, or if you’re new in job or school (Or someone new is joining your job or school).

Whenever you’re expected to get to know people, start conversations by asking a question about them. I call this the Get to Know-method.

Examples: Starting a conversation by asking these “Get to know-questions”

These questions can be used to get to know someone new at work, in school, or to anyone at a party, mingle, or dinner.

Hi, Nice meeting you! I’m David…

… How do you know people here?
… Where are you from?
… What brings you here?
… What do you do?

Pro tip: I’ve memorized these questions, so I can always fire them off when I’m expected to get to know someone.

I then ask a follow-up question:

They: I know Beccah over there.
You: Nice, how do you know each other?
They: I’m from upstate New York.
You: Cool, do you live in NYC now or do you commute?
They: I’m here because I always wanted to learn more about photography.
You: What do you like the most about photography?

But David, won’t I come off as an interrogator if I just ask people questions?

You want to share a little bit about yourself in between your questions. I talk more about that here.

LESSON LEARNED:

Memorize the “get to know” questions above, so you can always fire them off when you’re expected to socialize. Then, ask a follow up question to get the conversation going.

[What type of social overthinker are you? Take this quiz and get a custom report based on your unique personality and goals. Start the quiz]

4. Talking to friends or people you already know

Start a conversation with a friend

In this step, I show how to start a conversation with a friend by relating back to a previous conversation.

Let’s say that it’s a new day at work or in school. You’ve met your classmates or colleagues daily before, but it still feels awkward to start talking. How do you break the “morning ice”?

Answer:

By picking up on something you talked about last time.

What I do is to think back to what we were last talking about, and ask something about it.

  • If a friend mentioned that she had a sore throat, I’d ask the next time we meet “How’s your throat today?”
  • If a someone talks about the new bike he bought, I’d ask “Have you received the new bike?”
  • If someone mentions that they’ll be traveling somewhere, I ask “How was the trip?”

And then, we can talk about their cold or trip or bike!

This is GOLDEN, because it shows people that you care about them, and you always have something to talk about!

Exercise: Think back to the last conversation you had with some friends. What did they talk about? What can you ask them about it the next time you meet?

5. Topics and subjects to get the conversation going when your mind goes blank

Conversation topics to talk about

Use these conversation topics when your conversation goes blank

When you just start a conversation, these are my 3 favorite starter topics to be up to date on:

  1. Newsworthy events “Did you hear about..?”
  2. The weather (If you’re in an area where the weather changes)
  3. TV-shows and popular culture

You can use any of these topics when a conversation runs dry.

Example of using popular topics to keep a conversation going

Friend: So yeah, that’s why I avoid gluten.
You: Oh, makes sense…
(Crickets)
You: By the way, are you up to date on the new hurricane they’re talking about now?

(Conversation can continue)

LESSON LEARNED:

Keep up to date on a few topics that are highly relevant – use them when the conversation runs dry.

Here’s what my conversation looks like when I want to get to know someone.

  1. Make a positive comment or ask a question about the situation you’re in
  2. Ask basic get to know questions about them and share a bit about you
  3. Ask what they do or what they are interested in, to figure out mutual interests
  4. If you find a mutual interest, talk about that!

The end goal of small talk is to find a mutual interest – something BOTH of you love to talk about. When you find a mutual interest, the conversation stops being boring!

If you want more specific conversation starters, go here.

[What type of social overthinker are you? Take this quiz and get a custom report based on your unique personality and goals. Start the quiz]

6. How to start a conversation with someone online or over text/sms/chat

Start conversation over text or sms

To start talking to someone online, follow these three steps. 

In step 1, I’ll cover how to contact someone out of the blue, and in step 2 and 3, I’ll talk about how to keep in touch with someone you’ve talked to before.

Step 1: Have a clear reason to contact a new person

When you text someone new or someone you barely know, you need a clear REASON for why you are contacting them. (Even in you just want to form a connection)

Examples of online messages with a clear reason:

“Sorry to bother you but what are the pages we should study for Monday? //David”
“Is this your blue beanie? Someone left it the hallway //David”
“Do you know what time we start tomorrow?”

Even if you just get short replies, you have now established a contact. This is important, because it makes it natural to keep in touch from now on! Which leads us to…

Step 2: Follow up with something you’ve been talking about before

Relate back to something you know the person might be interesting that you’ve talked about before.

“Hi, I saw this article about russian authors and came to think of you!”
“You talked about electric cars, have you seen this new model?”
“I know that you like nineties country, have you heard this song?”

Step 3: Keep the contact warm by sending easy to digest texts

Not all, but MOST people don’t like neverending small talk over text or chat.

Instead, message people online as a way to keep them warm until you meet up.

You can do that by sending memes, interesting links, or songs you know someone might like.

Here’s my text conversation with a friend. As you can see, it’s almost no small talk but only easy-to-consume fun links.

Text conversation example

I asked several of my best female friends how they talk to their friends online.

It seems generally that girls make a bit more small talk online, and guys are more to the point – less overall communication and more interesting or funny links.

Pro tips:

  1. Avoid things that take a lot of energy to read or reply to, like long articles or videos
  2. Send things related to what you know that THEY like
  3. Send things that are fun and interesting rather than negative or sad

Read more here: The complete guide to making friends online.

7. Keep the conversation interesting using the IFR-Method

IFR method

How to keep a conversation you start interesting and balanced using the IFR-method

If we ask too many questions, we come off as an interrogator. If you talk too much about yourself, people get bored. So how do we find the balance? By using the IFR method.

Inquire: Ask a sincere question
Follow up: Ask a follow-up question
Relate: Share a little bit about yourself, related to what they said.

After you’ve related, ask a new sincere question (Inquire). And that’s the loop.

The other day I talked to someone who turned out to be a filmmaker. Here’s how the conversation went:

Inquire: – What kind of documentaries do you do? She: – Right now I’m doing a movie on bodegas in New York City.
Follow up: – Oh, interesting. What’s your take away so far? She: – That almost all bodegas seem to have cats!
Relate: – Haha, I’ve noticed that. The one next to where I live have a cat who always sits on the counter.
And then I inquire (IFR repeat): Are you a cat person?

You want to make the conversation go back and forth like that. They talk a little it about themselves, we talk about ourselves, then let them talk again, and so on.

That’s how socially savvy people get to know someone!

LESSON LEARNED:

Balance the conversation by asking a sincere question, follow up, and then relate to what they said. Inquire again, follow up, relate, and so on.

8. How to start talking to a guy or girl you like

start talking to a guy or girl

Talking to someone you like isn’t about finding the “magic right thing” to say!

Rather, it’s about daring to talk to the person in the first place.

One time, a friend and I were out walking. Two girls stopped us, and asked us if we had a pen. We started talking, and ended up hanging out.

Later, they revealed that they had just asked about a pen because they wanted to flirt with guys.

We had no clue!

Do you see how they used the method of asking a sincere question I explained in step 1? This stuff works!

Also, notice how simple it is to start a conversation with someone, just by asking a question like that.

When you’ve asked, you can ask a follow-up question like I also explained in step 1.

Here’s a common mistake when talking to someone we’re attracted to: We raise the stakes, and think that we need to say the exact right thing. That makes us nervous, stiff, and perhaps we end up saying nothing at all.

Don’t put people you like in a new bucket with new rules. Just practice making normal conversation with people you like. That will take you far.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  1. Ask a simple question to start talking to the person you like.
  2. Continue the conversation by asking a follow up question or sharing something about yourself.

Go to step 1 of this guide to learn more.

Here’s another secret about talking to someone you like:

It’s not about what you say, but how you say it. You want to be able to make relaxed and easy going conversation. That leads us to…

[What type of social overthinker are you? Start the quiz and get a custom report]

9. How to start a conversation with someone you just met, even if it makes you nervous

nervous when starting a conversation

Here’s how to stop being nervous when you talk to someone: Focusing on THEM. In this step, I show you how to do that.

Whenever I had to go up and talk to someone, it was like every cell in my body screamed “NOO!”.

I became self-conscious. I started worrying about what others might think of me.

– “What should I say?”
– “Do I look weird?”
– “What if they won’t like me!”

Suddenly, I felt nervous and miserable.

Here are my tricks for how to get out of this rut:

Method 1: Use “Refocus” to feel less self-conscious

I focus my full attention on the person I’m about to talk to and ask myself questions about them.

In one study, half of the participants were asked to focus on the person they were talking to. The other half were asked to focus on themselves.

Those who focused outward described themselves as HALF AS NERVOUS as those who focused on themselves.

“But David! If I focus on the person, how will I then be able to come up with stuff to say? I need to be in my own head so I can come up with questions!”

Here’s the thing: When we focus on someone or something – THAT’S when questions pop up in our heads!

We become LESS self-conscious and it’s EASIER to come up with what to say.

Let’s say that you want to talk to a new colleague at work.

We can call her Lisa, and we walk up and say hi to her.

Here’s Lisa:

Start conversation in the office

What would you ask her? Blank? Ok, then we want to focus more!

If I really focus on that photo of Liza, I come up with the following questions:

  • How do you like it here so far?
  • What are you working with?
  • Is that your cactus you have there? Are you a plant person?
  • What did you do before you came here?

I’m sure you can come up with more questions. You wouldn’t have to ask these questions out loud. You can have them in the back of your head and fire them off to keep the conversation going and avoid awkwardness.

When you focus on someone else or something else than yourself, that makes you LESS SELF-CONSCIOUS and MORE CONFIDENT.

Read more here on how to start a conversation when you feel nervous.

Method 2: Use the “Mission Trick” to talk to someone you’re attracted to

As soon as we want to talk to someone who’s attractive, or someone we have a crush on, we get more nervous than ever.

Here’s where I use the “Mission Trick”:

Have a clear mission of what you want to talk about. In step 8, I showed you how two girls started talking to me and my friends by asking if we had a pen. Their mission? Find a pen.

Here are some other missions

  • Find out what time it is (Because you don’t have your phone on you)
  • Figure out the direction to somewhere
  • Borrow something
  • Get to know some piece of information

Ask your question, and as a backup, you have have a second question in the back of your head.

It can sound something like this:

– “Sorry, but do you know what time it is?”
– “It’s 12:30”
– “Great, thank you. Do you study physics?”
– “Yeah, I do”
– “Nice, It’s really hard though! Do you like it?”

(Here, I use the IFR method I explained here)

LESSONS LEARNED:

  1. Focus on THEM (That makes you less self conscious, and easier to come up with questions.
  2. Have a MISSION. When your mission is complete, ask a follow-up question and share something about yourself, like on the example above.

[What type of social overthinker are you? Take this quiz and get a custom report based on your unique personality and goals. Start the quiz]

I’m David Morin

A few years ago, I probably looked successful on the surface. But I didn’t feel successful.

I had started an import business and turned it into a multi million dollar company. (It’s now owned by the Swedish concern MEC Group).

Despite this, I still had a hard time enjoying socializing and being authentic. I still felt awkward and off in conversations.

So I committed to becoming really good at making conversation and bonding with people. It turned out that I was able to become really good at all that, without having to transform into one of those shallow, superficial persons I’ve always despised.

The interest for what I’ve learned has been huge. Perhaps you’ve seen my writing in magazines like Business Insider and Lifehacker.

Read more about me here.

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Comments (11)

  1. Marie

    Thank you…very valuable. More than frequently I experience a situation with (nice) people I know , a neighbor, a casual friend, a member of a social group in which I belong… who will go on and on and on without seeming to even take a breath and then go on and on and on….about themselves, their trip, their children’s lives, etc., to the point that I can’t believe it. The conversations end up one sided and about them without me even asking encouraging questions as stimulation for them to keep going..they just do go on like automatic pilot. I would like to learn clever ways to insert something that can shift the flow to a 50-50 give and take conversation. My attempts with my neighbor fail as she just waits until I take a breath to then “grab the mike away from me” and goes right back to her long drawn out story one after another. I would welcome scriptings of acceptable and non hurtful ways to interrupt giving the message of, “I am interested and willing to listen but I want to talk and share conversation as well.” Yesterday, I became feeling annoyed because as I took a breath, she jumped right back in….I put up my hands and said, “Please, let me finish.” She slumped back and looked hurt saying, “oops, sorry,” and as soon as I finished we were right back into her long auditory journal.
    Suggestions……appreciated.

  2. simon

    Thanks for sharing this Great article
    I appreciate the valuable time you have used to share this.

  3. Tunde

    Thanks alot😖😖😖

  4. Jeffrey

    Thank u soooo much

  5. Chris

    This was really helpful for me!

  6. Daryl

    Hey,

    I like the find the mission part, because then, from what i understand, lets say i like music and meet someone with a guitar, my mission form there could be maybe we can meet later to jam or even record and have fun making and talking about music.

    I feel that being self aware and mindful of myself and other peoples interest will be the glue me that holds relationships together.

    we are social creatures and sometimes finding and “working” on goals with others can help solidify the relationships faster and deeper.

    I think that even if i meet someone from the other side of the world there should still be a point of interest to build un.

    Cheers

  7. Anonymous

    Thanks breh!
    Its so helpful. <3

  8. Saraah

    So profound and spot on!

    • David Morin

      Glad you liked it Saraah!

  9. Jean

    Those are some good suggestions for starting conversation that’s not as intimidating to oneself and the other person.

    However, this reminds me of when I was a child, another kid asked me to borrow a pencil and I wasn’t sure what to say other than to give her a pencil. Also, I would freeze when someone would say they left their textbook at home and wanted to look at my textbook alongside me as the teacher was going over it. But fortunately, I don’t feel quite as inhibited anymore these days. (Wish I can go back to my childhood and change things because I missed out on so much.)

    But must leave yesterday behind and live for tomorrow. Yes, commenting on something in common situation or observation is one of the most comfortable ways to start a conversation, I think.

    • David Morin

      Happy to hear that you’re less inhibited today. Yes, sometimes we need to leave yesterday behind.