But there is a secret to effective small talk that works almost every time: changing the questions you ask from "close-ended" to "open-ended."
Take, for example, the simple idea of asking a colleague about his trip. A close-ended version of the question would be something like: "Did you like your trip?" or "Was the trip good?"
The problem with this close-ended version is that it invites a simple "yes" or "no" response -- and in doing so, brings the conversation to a halt:
You: Bob, did you like your trip?
Bob: Yes -- it was great. Thanks!
Conversation over -- or at least stalled awkwardly.
Enter the solution to this problem: the open-ended question. Asking questions in this subtly different way is a great little trick for increasing the chance of a lengthier answer from Bob -- and then giving you a better chance to help extend the small talk conversation.
So, instead of "Did you like your trip," say instead: "Tell me about your trip?!"
You might think this is an inconsequential difference, but it's not. It's actually pretty powerful. With the open-ended prompt, Bob will likely share more information with you -- and that's information you can pick up on to keep the conversation going. For example:
You: Hey, Bob. So tell me about your trip!
Bob: It was great. We went to the Grand Canyon for a few days, and then rented a car to drive to L.A .and then down the coast to San Diego.
Voilà -- now you have it! Fodder for continuing the conversation. You might ask about the Grand Canyon -- or potentially tell Bob that you too have visited the Grand Canyon (if that's true) and enjoyed it. Or maybe you know something about L.A. or San Diego -- or have even made the drive yourself. The point is that even if you know nothing about these places, you have much more to go on with the open-ended version to extend the conversation. And that's how to really make small talk work.
Try it out for yourself. You'll be surprised at how effective it can be.