How to Start a Conversation
The complete guide on how to start talking to someone in everyday life, at work, in school, over text or online.
A few years ago, I had NO CLUE how to start a conversation with new people. I committed to reading books on how to make conversation, learning from socially savvy people, and spending thousands of hours socializing.
Today, I teach social skills for a living. Perhaps you’ve seen me in Business Insider and Lifehacker.
What you’ll learn in this guide
- How to start talking with people in day-to-day life, with someone you’ve said hi to before, and with acquaintances.
- Conversations specifically at work or school, over text/SMS/chat, or with someone you have a crush on.
- What to do if your head goes blank, if starting a conversation makes you nervous and how to make a conversation INTERESTING.
Go here for my separate guide on how to be more social.
1. Ask something about the situation to start a conversation in day to day life
The easiest way to come up with something to say is often to use the situation for inspiration.
Examples of day to day situations where you might want to strike up a conversation
- Ending up at the lunch table with people from another job department or school class.
- Standing with others in the hallway waiting for class to start.
- Sitting next to another traveler on the train or plane.
Don’t ask direct questions in day to day life
At social events, which we talk about here, the norm is that strangers present themselves to each other. In day to day life, on the other hand, you can’t be as direct.
Ask a simple question about the situation rather than the other person
To ease in, we can ask a question about the situation we’re in.
That gives us a reason to start talking, and it’s not too direct.
It helps to ask something that you already have on your mind. But if you don’t, you can use your surroundings or the situation for inspiration.
An example of a day to day conversation from last week
Last week I ended up next to someone on the train.
I’d been wondering if they served snacks on board. That’s a natural thing to use as a conversation starter: A question about the surroundings I already have on my mind.
I asked her: “Excuse me, do you know if they serve snacks here?”
She responded with something like “Hmm. Yeah, they should!” And it was natural for me to ask a follow-up question. “Good, I forgot breakfast today.” (Both smiled) Me: “Do you take this train often?.”
Let’s go through some common worries about starting a conversation, and after that, I’ll talk more about follow-up questions.
2. If you worry about saying obvious things, know that small talk often is mundane, and that’s OK.
The meaning of the actual question isn’t that important. You don’t have to try to come off as unique or smart in your first interaction.
Rather, see the question as signaling that you’re friendly and open for interaction.
In reality, small talk is often mundane, and people are OK with that. Small talk is just a warm-up for more interesting conversation.
3. Look at the direction of their feet and gaze to know if someone wants to keep talking
There are a number of signs you can pay attention to: How to see if someone wants to talk to you.
However, it’s normal to just get a short yes or no answer to your first question. It doesn’t mean that people don’t want to talk to you, just that you have to give them a few seconds to switch over to “social mode”.
But if they only give short answers to your follow-up questions, it’s usually a good idea to say “thanks” or “nice chatting with you” and move on.
Another helpful sign is to look at the direction of their feet and the direction of their gaze. If they look away from you a lot or point their feet away from you, it’s often a good sign that they want to end the conversation.
4. Ask follow-up questions to get a conversation going
To signal that we’re interested in talking to someone, we can ask follow-up questions.
In the example with the train, I asked: “Do you take this train often?”. That’s a simple follow-up to my question about snacks on board.
Rather than asking several general questions, like “Where are you from?” and then “How do you know people here” and then “What do you do”, follow-up questions usually dig deeper.
An example would be:
“Where are you from?” and then “What was it like growing up there?” and then “What do you miss the most from that place?”
5. Share things about yourself to not get stuck only asking questions
How to keep a conversation you start interesting and balanced using the IFR-method
We don’t want to ask too many questions in a row, and also not talk too much about ourselves. So how do you find the balance? A good rule of thumbs it 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 has 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 bit about themselves, we talk about ourselves, then let them talk again, and so on.
6. Use open-ended questions to get the conversation going
An open-ended question is a question you can’t reply yes or no to. By using open-ended questions, people often feel inspired to give a longer answer.
Closed-ended: Did you like school?
Open-ended: What was school like for you?
However, this doesn’t mean that all closed-ended questions are bad. For example, if you start a conversation in day-to-day life, an open-ended question can feel out of the blue, while a close-ended question is more natural:
“Are you done reading that magazine?” is more natural than “What did you think of that magazine?”
Here’s a longer list of examples of closed-and open-ended questions.
7. Know that tone of voice is more important than what you actually say
How you come across when you start talking to someone is a little about what you say and all about how you say it.
Many focus too much on saying the right words and forget how they say it.
You want to have a friendly and relaxed tone of voice. If you do, you don’t have to worry about the exact words you use.
You don’t need to BE confident to sound friendly and relaxed. When I started off, I practiced talking in a friendly and relaxed way in the mirror.
8. Examples of how to start a conversation in day to day life
Rather than fabricating questions, you can ask things you actually wonder about (like I did on that train). Don’t worry about asking obvious questions. If you sound friendly and relaxed, the questions will sound natural.
Sitting next to someone on a train or plane
You: “Do you know how to make the seats recline? (Question about the situation)
They: “You press the button to the right.”
You: Thanks! Are you also going to Denver? (Closed follow up-question)
They: Yes, I am! I’m going to visit my family.
You: Nice, me too. I haven’t been home in 6 months. Where do you live now? (Sharing about yourself and asking an open follow-up question)
Ending up next to someone from another department at work
You: “Is that Whiting you have there or what kind of fish is that?” (Question about the situation)
They: “I don’t know actually”.
You: “I’m no fish expert neither, haha. But it looks good… What department are you from?”
They explain where they work
You: “Okay nice, I work at (explains). How do you like it over there?” (Sharing about yourself and asking an open follow-up question)
Waiting with someone else in the corridor for the class to start
You: “Is this the physics lecture hall?” (Question about the situation)
You: “Great. How are you feeling about the test?” (Open follow-up question)
They “I hope it’ll go well. I felt like I grasped it better yesterday when I went through it again”.
You: “Yeah same here, even though I didn’t have time to check out the last chapter. How come you chose this course?” (Sharing about yourself and asking an open follow-up question)
9. Make a positive remark to start a conversation with someone you’ve said hi to before
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?”.
Because you know each other a little bit, you can be a little bit more direct than with complete strangers.
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 person working at the cafe where you get your morning coffee every morning
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 before you know each other better.)
When you say something positive, you’ll come off as more friendly. After all, they don’t know you yet, so their first impression of you will be the first words you use.
Now, you can continue the conversation as I showed in these examples.
10. Use your five senses to come up with things to remark on
In social situations, it tends to be harder to think and sometimes it’s hard to come up with anything to say about our surroundings.
The five senses exercise can help. It helps us to be better at picking up on what our senses tell us. As a result, it makes it easier for us to start a conversation.
This is also a grounding exercise that helps reduce anxiety since instead of focusing on your anxious thoughts, you’re being present with the world around you.
Dan Wendler, Psy.D., explains the exercise:
Notice something around you, with each of your five senses.
See if there are things in your room that you can…
Have you found five things? Great!
Can you choose one or two things to say something positive about? Or, if you want a real challenge, can you find something positive to say about each of the five senses?
You can use this method whenever you want to start a conversation. It makes it easier to notice what’s going on around you and come up with ideas.
Here are some examples that I came up with when I made this exercise:
“That’s a nice design for a kitchen.”
“You can see really far from here”
“I love the coffee smell”
“I wonder if coffee tastes good just because it makes me feel good, or if I like the taste of the coffee itself”
“I like when it gets a bit chillier in the evening”
But David, these are just meaningless statements!
What we’re doing here is signaling to people “I’m not a threat, and I’m open to 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.
11. Use a few get-to-know questions when people expect you to talk to them
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 at work or school (Or someone new is joining your job or school).
In day to day life, we need to break the ice before we can start the interaction.
But sometimes, we’re expected to talk to people: At parties, mingles, dinners, our first day at work or school.
Here, you can start the conversation 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, at a party, mingle, or dinner.
Hi, Nice meeting you! I’m David…
… How do you know people here?
… Where are you from?
… What do you do?
Pro tip: I’ve memorized these questions, so I can fire one off if I run out of other things to say.
Here are some examples.
I use follow-up questions in the same way as my examples here.
You, at a writing workshop: How do you know people here?
They: I know Becka over there.
You: Nice, how do you know each other?
You: Ok, I see. I know Jessica. She and I are friends from college. She loves writing so she conveyed me to come and now I’m very happy I did. How did you and Becka get into writing?
You, at a friends’ party: Where are you from?
They: I’m from upstate New York.
You: Cool, do you live in NYC now or do you commute?
You: I’m from Sweden originally but moved here a few years ago. How do you like it here?
You: Hi, I’m David. Nice to meet you. What brings you here?
They: I’m here because I always wanted to learn more about photography.
You: Me too! What do you like most about photography?
You can explain what you like the most, and then you can ask a follow-up question: “What’s it like shooting analogous compared to digital?”
As you can see in the examples, you want to share a little bit about yourself in between your questions. I talk more about this here.
- You can 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 based on what they said to get the conversation going.
- In between your questions, share a little bit about yourself.
12. Pick up where you left off last time when you talk to acquaintances
In this step, I show how to start a conversation with someone you talked to before 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. What should you say to start talking with them again?
Here, you can pick 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 day we meet “How’s your throat today?”
- If someone talks about the new bike he bought, I’d ask “Has the new bike arrived?”
- If someone mentions that they’ll be traveling somewhere, I ask “How was the trip?”
Only ask about things that you’re both likely to remember that you talked about.
And then, we can talk about their cold or trip or bike, or completely change subject.
Here’s an exercise for picking up where you left off
- Think back to the last conversation you had with some friends.
- Try to remember some things they told you.
- Come up with a question you can ask about that the next time you meet.
13. Mention newsworthy topics when your mind goes blank
Use these conversation topics when your conversation goes blank
These are my 3 favorite starter topics to be up to date on or to use when the current topic dies out:
- Newsworthy events “Did you hear about..?”
- The weather (If you’re in an area where the weather changes)
- 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…
You: By the way, are you up to date on the new hurricane they’re talking about now?
(Conversation can continue)
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.
- Make a positive comment or ask a question about the situation you’re in
- Ask basic get to know questions about them and share a bit about you
- Ask what they do or what they are interested in, to figure out mutual interests
- 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 small talk questions, go here.
14. Starting a conversation with someone online or over text/DMs/Instagram/Snapchat, etc
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:
“I saw your dog on Instagram and have to ask what breed it is?”
“Amanda in our office told me that you’re also into edible plants. Which ones are your focus?”
“I saw that you also have an electric motorcycle so I thought I’d reach out to you. Are you happy with yours”?
If you’ve already talked in real life:
“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?”
Here’s how I make sure that I don’t bother people: If the person doesn’t come back to me, I try sending something else a week later. If they still don’t come back to me, I don’t write them again.
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.
Step 4: Ask to meet up in real life
When I meet up with someone in real life, I often invite them over to a group activity. It could be:
- Meeting up with friends to talk about a mutual interest or play a game we’re all into
- Going to an event related to our mutual interest (Seminars, groups, workshops, classes)
- Simply invite them when you meet with other friends that you think can have things in common.
Group activities or events are good because you don’t need to talk all the time, and it feels safer for both if there are people around.
How much small talk to make online
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.
- Avoid things that take a lot of energy to read or reply to, like long articles or videos
- Send things related to what you know that THEY like
- Send things that are fun and interesting rather than negative or sad
Read more here: The complete guide to making friends online.
15. Try to simply make normal conversation when you talk to a guy or girl you like
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.
- Ask a simple question to start talking to the person you like.
- Continue the conversation by asking a follow-up question or sharing something about yourself.
Go to step 1 of this guide to learn more.
Related guides you might be interested in:
Here’s another secret about talking to someone you like:
16. Dealing with nervousness when you start a conversation
Here’s how to stop being nervous when you talk to someone: Focusing on THEM and THE CONVERSATION. In this step, I’ll 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: Practice focusing on the conversation 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 conversation. The other half were asked to focus on themselves.
Those who focused on the conversation described themselves as HALF AS NERVOUS as those who focused on themselves.
“But David! If I focus on the conversation, 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.
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.
Method 2: Ask yourself what a confident person would do if you tend to overthink
If you overthink a lot, it could be that you worry too much about making social mistakes or being judged.
Here it can help to think “What would a truly self-confident person do?”
Often, when we ask ourselves this question, it can help us figure out if it’s fine to say it or not. If a confident person can say it, so can we.
You can even have a specific person in mind. “What would Michelle Obama do” or “What would the Rock do”. (Or a confident person you know.)
More on this in my guide on how to not be nervous.
Method 3: Have a mission
As soon as we want to talk to someone who’s attractive or someone we have a crush on, we tend to 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 a second question in the back of your head.
In the hallway before the physics lecture
– “Sorry, but do you know what time it is?”
– “It’s 12:30”
– “Great, thank you. Do you study physics too?”
– “Yeah, I do”
– “Nice! It’s fun but I found this class to be really hard. How do you like it?”
(Here, I keep the conversation balanced using the IFR-method I explained here)
- Focus on THEM (That makes you less self-conscious, and easier to come up with questions.
- Have a MISSION. When your mission is complete, ask a follow-up question and share something about yourself, like in the example above.
- Malinowski, B. (1923). “The problem of meaning in primitive languages”, in: Ogden, C. & Richards, I., The Meaning of Meaning, Routledge, London.
- Conklin, Mary Greer. (1738). Conversation: What to Say and How to Say It, pp. 21–32. New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls Company
- Navarro, J. (2009). What The Feet And Legs Say About Us! Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/spycatcher/200911/what-the-feet-and-legs-say-about-us
- Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167297234003
- R. Crystal, Legg, J.L. 30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts. Healthline. Retrieved August 20 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/grounding-techniques
- Winograd, Terry (1972). “Understanding natural language”. Cognitive Psychology. 3 (1): 1–191. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(72)90002-3
- Tickle-Degnen, L., & Rosenthal, R. (1990). The Nature of Rapport and Its Nonverbal Correlates. Psychological Inquiry, 1(4), 285-293. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1449345
- Dolan, E.W. Brain activity study links social anxiety to a preoccupation with making errors. Psypost. (2018). https://www.psypost.org/2018/03/brain-activity-study-links-social-anxiety-preoccupation-making-errors-50967
- Zou, J. B., Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (2007). The effect of attentional focus on social anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(10), 2326-2333. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2007.03.014
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 in 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.