Conversation, as a social construct, serves as a building block in the creation and maintenance of relationships. It also serves as a gateway, which if navigated successfully, can lead you to the information or results you want. On the surface, conversation is a simple dialogue of thoughts and ideas, but underneath, it carries rich opportunities to build and strengthen bonds, uncover new information, and present information of your own.
When talking to strangers or professional colleagues, you don't have a lot of breathing room in terms of topics and conversation patterns. You might excitedly tell a friend about a new book you're planning on releasing, but if you do that to a total stranger, they might just think you're trying to sell it to them. Skilled conversationalists are able to direct any conversation--even an innocuous "hey, what's up" to a place they want it to go.
So, how can you do this? Here are seven ways to start a conversation with potential to head in any direction you want:
1. Start with weather (or sports).
Small talk gets a lot of hate, but it's a perfect way to enter into a dialogue that isn't committed to any one subject. Starting with the weather, for instance, gives you plenty of avenues for further exploration--you can use it as a segue into your geographic location, how you used to live somewhere else, how you're anticipating an upcoming seasonal change, and so on. From there, you'll be able to springboard into an entirely new topic. For example, you could talk about how cold the weather is, then about how the upcoming winter will give you more time to work inside on your new book (drawing on the conversation topic example in the introduction).
2. Come out with a compliment.
Compliments are great conversation starters because they instantly flatter the recipient, making them warmer to you and more willing to participate in your conversation--no matter where it heads. Be specific and sincere in your compliment, however, or you'll risk alienating the person. Let the other person talk about the source of the compliment, and once the topic has been more or less exhausted, you can move in with almost any somewhat related topic you can think of--your flattered conversation partner will be much more open to hearing whatever you have to say.
3. Talk about the venue.
Talking about the venue or your environment is another great conversation starter that can work anywhere (and with anyone). If you're at a networking event, you can talk about the coffee or the seating. If you're in the office, you can talk about the changes to the break room or the parking lot construction. It doesn't matter; all you have to do is find something around you that your conversation partner can also find. This will create a near-instant sympathetic connection, especially if you have the same feeling toward the topic. Then, you can shift gears and enter into a new topic.
4. Ask a favor.
Asking for a favor is a psychological trick invented (or first described) by Ben Franklin. For some evolutionary reason, when someone does a favor for someone else, it sparks an inherent connection with that person, making them more open to hearing whatever it is you have to say. The favor doesn't have to be a grand gesture or anything strange--it can be as simple as "Can I borrow your pencil?" or "Can you tell me where the bathroom is?"
5. Open with a joke.
Everybody loves jokes. Tell an intelligent, clean joke that makes the other person smile and you've instantly created a sympathetic connection that can sometimes sustain for an entire conversation. With premeditated jokes, you can easily find a joke related to your intended topic of conversation and lead in with it--it will seem innocuous and give you an opportunity to lead the conversation to your ultimate destination.
6. Start with an innocuous observation.
Any observation will do, but try to find something related to your intended topic of discussion. Point something out and ask your conversational partner what they think of it--it could be a strange mark on the floor or a piece of news that recently came out. Then, gradually introduce a string of conversation that points toward your intended goal.
7. Ask a question peripherally related to your intended topic.
People participate in conversations best when asked specific questions. Rather than trying to open a conversation with your intended topic directly, ask a related question to prime your conversational partner and loosely open into it. For example, if you want to talk about the book you're about to release, you could open with something like, "have you read any good books lately?", then gradually shift to your own writing.
Once you've started a conversation that has the potential to lead just about anywhere, all that stands between you and your intended topic is a directional series of questions and responses. That's a fancy way of saying all you need to do is hang onto the conversation long enough to gradually introduce the topic you want to explore.
Remember, the key to successfully leading a conversation into a direction is to do so subtly--trying to force a topic onto somebody is a sure way to turn them off. Practice this regularly, and eventually you'll get the hang of it.