Look, we’ve ALL been there…
You’re at a dinner party or on a Zoom call with a friend and your mind just goes...blank.
Maybe the vibe is just off, or the conversation seems to have run its course, running out of things to talk about on Facetime, Zoom, or IRL, can make you feel awkward, boring, and lame.
If you’ve ever felt the growing horror of dead air between you and your conversation partner, don’t worry - you’re in the right place.
We’re going to help you build up an arsenal of topics and questions that will help you defeat the conversation killing silence!
We can call them conversation starters, but you’ll notice that almost all of them are questions.
That’s because to keep a conversation going, you have to get people talking! And the fastest way to do that is to invite them to talk about themselves.
If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ve likely heard me say this before:
People love to talk about themselves.
So let them!
It may feel like you’re putting the work on them, but I promise they are just as eager to avoid the awkward silences as you are.
Learning and using the “things to talk about” below will help you keep the conversation flowing and put your conversation partners at ease.
Let’s dive in!
1. “How is your day going?”
This is a very simple question, but it’s one that allows others to share their experiences.
Just make sure you haven’t already covered this in the beginning of your conversation and remember to actively listen!
If they seem particularly animated about anything, follow up and ask more questions. (We'll cover a suped-up version of this question later!)
2. “What’s keeping you busy lately?”
This is a great question to whip out in awkward moments because of its neutral phrasing.
This question allows them to talk about work, school, hobbies, kids, spouses, sporting events, comi-cons, working out, the state of NASA… the world is your oyster here!
And in a culture that thrives on stress and productivity, people are almost always busy with something.
Asking about it allows them to vent a little and talk about what’s really on their mind, which can be a huge relief. And when people feel good about talking to you, they feel good about you.
3. “What hobbies are you into?”
Everyone has a life outside of work.
Even if their “hobby” is watching Netflix with a bowl of chex mix, getting them talking about something they enjoy is going to loosen up the conversation considerably.
And if they’re not giving you much to work with (one-word answers, etc.) you can always start talking about your own hobbies and ask them questions along the way! Remember, conversations are a two-way street.
4. “What’s something you’re excited about in the future?”
This is a great conversation starter because it tells you a lot about the person you’re speaking with without digging too deep and making them feel uncomfortable.
It’s light and meaningful at the same time - you’re giving them permission to share as much as they like without any pressure to do so.
Asking about something they’re looking forward to brings more energy to the conversation and allows you to get excited with them.
Are they excited about a concert, a new movie coming out, or a Magic the Gathering tournament?
Whatever it is, encourage them to share more by asking questions and using encouraging listening words like “cool!” and “how interesting!”
Listen to how my client Dustin improved his people skills with private coaching:
5. “What’s a movie you could watch anytime anywhere?”
Everyone has a favorite movie they know line for line.
Ask them what the movie is, and then follow up by asking what they love about it so much, when they first saw it, and how often they rewatch it.
Personally, if someone wanted to talk about Back to the Future, I would be absolutely pumped to talk to them again next time!
6. “If you could have one superpower for a day, what would it be?”
This one is a little more fun and wacky, making it perfect as an icebreaker in a group Zoom call.
This question forces people to use their imaginations and get in touch with their creative side, and it lightens up an awkward moment with childhood enthusiasm.
After they tell you their superpower, ask them why they chose it and how they would use it in everyday life. Just be sure that you have your superpower ready to share too!
I’d go with teleportation personally...it would be a great way to save on airfare!
7. “What is your favorite place you’ve ever visited?”
This is a nice way to start or continue a conversation about travel without accidentally putting someone on the spot.
Asking more specific closed questions like “Have you ever been out of the country?” is dangerous because if the answer is “no”, your conversation is dead in the water again. And you risk making people feel self-conscious if they’re not especially well-traveled.
Asking them about their favorite place lets them decide the criteria and you get to continue the conversation by asking them why they love it, when they visited, if they went with anyone else, etc.
8. “That reminds me of a story…”
This is one of the few non-question things to talk about on our list! (Important to balance questions with statements/stories.)
In previous articles I’ve talked about how to craft a compelling story.
It’s incredibly useful to have a few stories on different topics pre-crafted and ready to go in case of emergency silences.
Storytelling is a universal language and your stories can be adapted to work in many social situations - a story about travel can also be about relationships or preparing ahead or the dangers of being hangry (hunger-induced anger).
Just make sure you’re telling your stories at appropriate moments and you’re not just talking to fill the silence.
Also, check out this video where I break down the core components of an engaging story:
9. “What was the highlight of your week so far?”
This is a great way to get past the autopilot answer people tend to throw out when you ask “How are you?” or “How has your week been?” Being more specific and leaving it open-ended pushes them to reflect and share a real answer.
And even if the answer is “I don’t know” or “I don’t have any…” don’t panic!
This is a chance to empathize and respond with something like, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Having a stressful week?”
Give people a chance to vent and they’ll usually take it - just be patient and encouraging until you get them talking!
10. “Have you seen that YouTube Video/Meme going around?”
This is a great one because it’s a win-win question. If the answer is yes, you have something in common to bond over and laugh about.
And if the answer is no, you can pull it up on your screen or phone and be the one to show it to them!
My current favorite? The attorney who can’t figure out why he’s a cat on Zoom.
11. “What was your dream job when you were a kid?”
This question gets people to share something about themselves while sticking to a very safe realm - work.
This question inevitably leads to questions about what they do now, and how they adapted their dreams to reality.
It also leads naturally into a conversation about what they’d like to do in the future.
12. “I’m a little nervous about﹍﹍. Do you have any advice?”
This works great in a work situation.
Be honest and transparent about the projects you have coming up that your conversation partner may have expertise in. You can also use this as social proof of your active listening skills.
For example, if they mentioned a DIY project they were working on, tell them you’re thinking about remodeling your bathroom but you’re nervous about using power tools.
Just remember to be genuine with this one - people can always tell when you’re trying too hard to gain favor.
13. “What’s your role in the group if a zombie apocalypse hits?”
This is one of the best things to talk about at a party because it’s silly and offbeat.
But it’s also like taking a mini personality quiz, which people love to do.
(Cough...like my communication style quiz...cough.)
Who’s the healer? The fighter? The one who dies first?
It’s also a great way to become the social facilitator and get the group to talk to one another. Anytime you can be the one that starts the fun, go for it!
It makes you much more approachable, memorable, and likable.
14. “What’s the last book you read?”
This another one of those win-win questions - as long as you’re prepared for the possible answers.
Obviously, if they name a book, you can ask them more about the plot and whether or not they liked it and then you’re off and running having a conversation about books my friend!
On the other hand, if they say “I don’t read much,” or “I'm more of a podcast person,” no sweat! Go with it!
Ask what they're into: Blog posts, podcasts, audiobooks, newspapers, magazines...everyone is into something!
Once you figure out their medium, have a conversation about that!
15. “What’s your Enneagram Type?”
Type 3s represent!!! Enneagram doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about me, but it is a great starting point.
Especially if the other person turns out to be the same as you - or even the exact opposite!
Bond over your common traits, laugh about your differences...
And if they have no idea?
Point them towards the Enneagram test! Ask them if they know their Meyers Briggs or DISC letter instead.
16. “If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?”
This is a great way to learn more about people’s motivations and desires.
Do they want to be rich and famous? Influential? Talented? Brilliant?
Once they tell you who they’d pick, dive deeper into why and then share your own thoughts!
I’d be Marty McFly - it’s the orange vest! Iconic!
(True story: Entered a Halloween contest as Marty McFly. No one got it. Their loss.)
Two Back to the Future gifs in one article?! HELL YES! I DGAF!
17. “If you could create a law that people had to follow, what would it be?”
This is a fun one because it tells you a lot about people’s pet peeves - and how they would handle unlimited power!
I’ve heard everything from “I’d make it impossible for drivers to turn without a blinker” to “I’d outlaw small talk.”
I once made a new friend when my conversation partner said “I’d make it illegal to talk in movie theaters.” Genius!
Tap into people’s creative side while handing them a new power fantasy and it’s like conversation Christmas! I’ve never had this one flop.
Bonus: 3 Things To Think About While You Come Up With Things to Talk About
These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative things to talk about.
And really, the best things to talk about with friends, at work, or at parties are the things that come up organically.
As you get more practice breaking the ice and skating past awkward silences, you’ll notice that you naturally start to tweak the items on this list to fit the situation.
But as you’re starting out, it can help tremendously to have several things to talk about ready and waiting in the wings. As you’re crafting your own conversation starters, keep these conversational tips in mind.
1. Use The Spokes Method to Think Around the Topic
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you hit a conversational brick wall. You were not expecting her hobby to be painting Ukrainian Easter eggs! Help!
This is where The Spokes Method comes in.
First, imagine a bike wheel.
In the middle, there is a hub, and out from that hub come spokes.
Now, imagine the hub as the conversational topic and the spokes as different, related topics that can be introduced.
Your conversation partner paints Ukrainian Easter eggs. How do you respond?
Hint: It is NOT to say “Huh, I don’t know anything about that.”
Instead, ask questions or make statements about topics around the topic, like:
And then just listen.
The best conversationalists are actually just the best listeners.
I explain more about The Spokes Method in this video:
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Dig Deep
In a world of small talk, people usually appreciate it when you dig a little deeper. If you’re ready to graduate past small talk, just use what I like to call “dig questions.”
Dig questions are basically follow up questions that you ask to show that you’re listening and to encourage the other person to go deeper.
Just be sure to balance out the questions with a little chatter and talking on your side or they’re going to start feeling interrogated.
3. Expect Silences. The Awkwardness is up to you.
To defeat the awkward silences, you must expect the awkward silences.
Silence is a normal part of conversation. You pause to let the other person talk or think or take a drink, or maybe you all pause to absorb a profound point.
It’s not awkward unless you think it is.
Sometimes a lull allows another person to think and respond and you end up learning more than you would have otherwise.
If you want to restart the conversation, try saying something like, “Oh, I just remembered x…”
Or recall something they mentioned earlier and say “Tell me more about x...”
The conversation should flow more naturally from there.
Practice using these things to talk about in your everyday conversation, and eventually they will become a natural part of how you interact with others!
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