Writing coaching

Small talk plays an important role in American culture, as we discussed in a recent post.  However, too much of a good thing can backfire: that is, produce the opposite of the intended (good) effect.  

When we have a special request or favor to ask of someone, starting with a little small talk is natural, but if we do NOT have a close personal relationship with that someone, it’s often useful to limit initial chitchat to 2-3 exchanges, and then introduce our request with minimal context … and ASK!

Let’s strategize about small talk first, and then the request.  Why strategize?  Because we’ll probably be a little nervous: asking for help from people outside our closest social circle can be psychologically demanding.  This isn’t something we do every day, so choosing the right words and the right way to say them can be challenging.  

If you intend to ask a favor of an acquaintance, associate, colleague, or anyone else who is NOT a close friend or relative — and especially if you haven’t spoken to this person in a long time — try to limit small talk to one minute or less (unless your partner keeps it going by asking YOU some questions).

This little bit of foresight may help you AVOID a one-sided “exchange”:

A: Hi!  Long time no talk!  Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!  How have you been?  

B: [short response]

A: Did you go anywhere for the holidays?  

B: [short response]

A: So how is everything?  Are you still teaching at the university?  

B: [short response]

A: How’s your wife doing?  Is she still in the fashion industry?  

B: [short response]

A: Oh wow, that’s great!  And your parents — how are they doing? 

If you find yourself driving this kind of “interrogation,” cut it short: your partner will be relieved!  Notice this example includes a couple of “dead-end” yes/no questions likely to elicit yes- or no-only responses.  

But there’s an even more serious problem here: the question content may be unwelcome.  Your partner may not be in the mood right now to discuss work, wife, or parents — especially if your relationship is not close.  Imposing such questions could even affect how the other person responds to your eventual request.

Now let’s consider how you might structure your request.  Expect to feel a little anxious (it’s normal) and do your best to push through it.  Express your purpose in two very short parts — CONTEXT (essential background information, condensed into one sentence or phrase) and REQUEST:

CONTEXT: Well, the reason I’m calling you today is that I’m looking for a job and … 

REQUEST: … I was wondering if I could ask you for any suggestions you might have about …

Note that the CONTEXT does not tell a long story.  Long-story-SHORTextremely short! — is our goal here.  

And notice the REQUEST features indirect words to soften its impact: 

I was wondering: common introductory softener; signals that a request (or other special/sensitive remark) is coming, alerting the listener to a “turn” in the conversational flow.

if I could ask you: “if” conditional, with the burden of action on the speaker “I” asking, not the listener “you” giving (NOT: “if you could give me …”); this additional signal gently & politely announces, “Incoming question!”

any: meaning “any possible” or “if you happen to have any”; the speaker does not assume the listener has suggestions to offer, which lowers expectations and helps lighten a request.

might: conditional modal, with an implied if”: if you happen to have ideas, if you can think of anything spontaneously, if you would be willing to share your thoughts.

In most routine situations in the USA, you’ll probably receive warmer and more thoughtful responses to your requests if you limit small talk, get to your point relatively quickly, choose words that burden YOU instead of the other person, and soften your wording with a few “if”s, “might”s & “any”s!


This article is a revised version of an earlier post that appeared in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 16, 2021.

English language coaching

“I see you’re wearing a Yankees cap.  Are you a baseball fan?”

This is small talk: a useful conversation-starter, or just an add-on to “Hi, how are you?”  Notice the comment (“Yankees cap”) + question (“you a fan?”) structure — we’ll come back to that soon when we discuss techniques.

But first — why bother reading about small talk?  After all, you probably do it naturally with people you want to interact with.  That’s great … but remember those awkward times when you wanted to interact with someone but couldn’t think of the right thing to say? 

Small talk can be a BIG challenge for anyone facing new or anxiety-inducing situations, including many key moments in our careers.  And small talk can be a BIG deal in relationship-building: people prefer to socialize and do business with others they feel comfortable with, and this sense of comfort can be established & maintained through light conversation that feels natural and builds rapport.

So strengthening your small talk skills can enhance your personal & professional encounters.  Here’s a simple formula that can remind us what small talk is, and what it’s for:

small talk = SHOWING INTEREST

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too new to make me feel “interested” yet?

I hear you!  That’s why the key word SHOWING is helpful.  Showing interest can come from (a) having genuine interest and expressing it … or (b) making an effort: finding something — anything — to comment on!

In the “Yankees cap” example, (b) is likely to apply to me, as I’m not a Yankees fan; I’m not even a baseball fan, and I have no natural interest in discussing baseball or baseball hats … but hey: I’m making an effort by noticing something and remarking on it!

You may ask: What if the person or situation is too intimidating or tense, and I feel literally frozen?

I know — I’ve been there too!  Sometimes we have to “break the icebefore showing interest.  (The “ice” in this idiom indicates the initial frozen state of a new social situation; the awkward paralysis of people together not communicating.)

One of the easiest ways to break the ice is asking about the weather.  This works even for remote video-conferencing and phone calls:

“How’s the weather where you are?”

Notice this question doesn’t even require knowing where the other person is, which makes it very easy to use.  It leads naturally to discussing where the other person is, where you are, and suddenly the “ice” is broken, the conversational stream is flowing, and now you can show interest!

“I heard you say you’re from Italy.  What part of Italy are you from?”

That’s another example of the comment + question structure.  Comments set context for questions, and sometimes even prompt them: I may say “you’re from Italy” without knowing what else to say … and “What part?” naturally emerges!  

And by adding space between questions, comments create more comfortable pacing: focus on me (comment); then you (question); me; then you.  And you, I hope, do the same!  Asking questions only turns small talk into an interrogation, which can be unpleasant for your partner.

The “Italy” example features an information question (“What part?”), which unlocks more conversational potential than most yes/no questions do.  Information questions — those beginning with who, what, where, when, why, which, how — elicit specific and often revealing responses.  In contrast, yes/no questions may result in one-word answers: “Yes.”  Or “No.”  And nothing more!

As your small talk warms up, think of simple questions — especially information questions and yes/no questions with like — to follow up on what your partner says:

— “Did you like growing up there?”

— “Oh really?  Why?”

— “When was that?”

— “Where was that?”

— “That’s interesting; and then what happened?”

— “Wow!  How did you handle that?”

Follow-ups are short, easy to generate, and more fun to answer.  Since they demonstrate you’re listening and showing interest, they encourage meaningful conversation and transform small talk into real engagement.


A version of this article appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on April 1, 2021.

Vine Improvising Its Way Across a Wall, by Lloyd Bishop

Are you looking for ways to enhance the quality of your communication with others? 

Try validating, affirming, and building on what your conversation partners say, or “offer.”

In improvisational acting (“improv,” for short), this has become a core principle: it’s called “Yes, and” because it’s as simple as saying “Yes” … that is, affirming that what was just offered was valid … and then saying “and …” + adding to what was said or offered — that is, building on the offer.

For example, let’s say you and I start chatting — in real life or in an improvised role-play scenario:

You: “Whew!  It’s really hot out today!”

Me: “Yes, it is — and I wish I were somewhere way up north.”

You: “Yeah, me too; I’d like to be in Vermont right about now!”

Me: “Vermont sounds good; I hear it’s really pretty up there …”

Smooth!  You offered “really hot,” and I replied, “Yes, and …” and then you responded “Yeah + Vermont …” and then I said “sounds good + really pretty …” — we used various words as “Yes, and” substitutes.  Simple and natural, right?  But it’s not always easy to do this in actual conversations!  (More on that in a moment.)

In improv, “Yes, and” is lesson #1!

English language learners can boost their confidence, creativity, and fluency with improv exercises & role-plays.  Improvisation means making things happen or solving problems spontaneously, on the spot, without advance planning.  Engaging in improv — even very briefly — can help *YOU* handle unexpected situations, workplace conversations, and public speaking challenges more effectively. 

In improv scenario role-playing AND in the many real roles you play in life, you can enhance the quality of your interactions by validating & affirming what others offer.  As you probably know, brainstorming — generating fresh ideas in a context where all ideas are welcome, and no ideas are initially rejected — is built on this principle.

Why isn’t this always easy to do?  Well, a full answer to that might require some psychological & sociological insights, but for now, just consider how often we do this: 

You: “Whew!  It’s really hot out today!”

Me: “Do you think so?  Actually, it seems fairly cool to me.”

Oops — sorry!  I immediately denied the validity of your offer, negating your “really hot” with my “fairly cool.”  This can have a chilling effect on our conversation and even deflate your confidence.  My bad!  I should have realized that my “Actually” would lead to trouble.   

In improv scenarios, this trouble is serious: If you said it’s hot, and I said it’s cool, then what is the weather in our scenario?  The  imagined reality we could have built together for an audience (or just ourselves) has been undermined, and will need rescuing … or restarting.

An even more common troublemaker than “Actually” is “but” — often disguised as “Yes, but …”:

You: “I’d like to be in Vermont right about now!” 

Me: “Yes, but Canada’s even better than Vermont.”

Ouch!  My “butcanceled my own “Yes” — and maybe I didn’t consciously mean to deflate your “Vermont,” but subconsciously I did!  Watch out for this subtle conversation spoiler.

Improv & acting exercises offer ways to overcome the impulse to contradict, invalidate, negate, and deflate each other’s contributions to conversations & situations.  The imagined realities of role-play scenarios help stretch our sense of self and appreciation of other selves, expand our interpersonal comfort range, and enhance the quality of our real-life interactions & relationships!


A version of this article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on September 17, 2020.

As you know, vowel sounds in English can be confusing: we have so many different ways to spell them!  Consonant sounds can be challenging too.  And stressing the right syllables in words is especially important in English.

Refining your pronunciation is a long-term process, and the older you are, the more modest your expectations of progress must be.  Children can mimic and reproduce the sounds of second languages quickly and accurately, but if you’re past your teenage years, you’ll likely find pronunciation work a challenge.  However, you can learn to make subtle adjustments that will improve the way you sound in English!

One exercise you can start with is reviewing SINGLE vs. DOUBLE vowel sounds — read ALOUD the words that begin with the same consonant (for example, “f“) on the LEFT side below … immediately followed by the word(s) that begin(s) with that same consonant on the RIGHT side:

Notice how the two vowel sounds on the LEFT side are added together for the blended double sound on the RIGHT.

Now read ALOUD the words in the charts below in the same way:

If you’re color-oriented, notice that the two primary colors on the LEFT side of each chart are the “ingredients” for the blended complementary color on the RIGHT side — this visual reference may help reinforce the skill you’re working on: blending two “pure” vowels into a double vowel (diphthong).

Here’s another single-to-double-sound chart for you to practice reading ALOUD:

How do you like working on your English pronunciation skills? It can be fun — like working on music or singing skills — and even more fun with an instructor, whether in person or remotely.

If you’re an adult second-language learner, keep your expectations for progress modest … and if you practice skills one by one (as illustrated above), you’ll find that gradual, modest progress is not only possible, but enjoyable!

If you’d like individual coaching/instruction on your English pronunciation, please contact me directly (see my “About Lloyd” page — link at top right of this page).

Enjoy learning!

~ Lloyd ~

Stories in the Sand, by Bonnie Bishop

With so much content on the internet to use for refining your English language skills, the choices can seem overwhelming!  One site to include in your listening diet is The Moth (TheMoth.org), a public radio program / website / podcast dedicated to storytelling: people tell true personal stories in front of a live audience.  Like moths drawn to a flame, we humans are powerfully attracted to stories told “around the campfire” (actual or proverbial), so a storytelling-focused site is likely to entertain and enlighten YOU … as you hone your listening skills. 

Here are some tips on using Moth stories for language practice:

-1- Visit TheMoth.org and browse the most recent episode of The Moth Radio Hour (“See This Episode”), which usually includes 3-4 stories: scroll down to see titles, storytellers’ names, and one-sentence summaries.  The length of each story is listed in minutes:seconds (e.g., 12:47).  Browse other links on the site to find additional programs and stories.

-2- Some — but NOT most — stories offer a transcript, which can help you confirm your comprehension and study details like new vocabulary.  When you use a computer and link to a story title, a “Read Transcript” link may appear below, along with the more common links “Listen Now” and “Add to Playlist.”  You can also search the site for the key word “transcript” — a list of stories with transcripts will appear. 

-3- Consider borrowing a “The Moth Presents” transcript book from the library, featuring full scripts of popular stories: the two latest editions are Occasional Magic (2019) and All These Wonders (2017).  You can look over the first part of a transcript to identify a story you like, and then locate the audio at TheMoth.org.  To vary your practice, listen to stories with — and without — the transcript.

-4- Listen to the first 2-3 minutes of a story to discover whether you like the content and speaker’s voice — if you’re not interested within 3 minutes, try a different story.

-5- When you find a story that interests you, listen to all of it … and then listen again for details you missed the first time.  If possible, use a transcript to study new vocabulary in detail.  

-6- When you’re familiar with the content, use the story AGAIN for pronunciation practice by playing it phrase by phrase: PAUSE after each short phrase (a short sentence, or one part of a longer sentence), REPEAT it ALOUD … play the next phrase, PAUSE, and repeat!  

-7- If you like The Moth and want to receive the latest programs and episodes on your smartphone, subscribe to the podcast version.

Although professional performers sometimes appear on The Moth, most storytellers are ordinary people who have compelling stories to tell: their “pitches” are screened by Moth staffers, and if they’re selected to perform, storytellers receive tips and coaching on effective ways to present their stories.  The result for YOU is well-told tales that may make you laugh, cry, or both … and worthwhile content to help you enhance your own English language skills!


This article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on March 18, 2020.

Sandscape, by Bonnie Bishop

Near the end of my English language listening/speaking-focused courses, students often ask me, “How can I continue building my skills on my own?”  

You’re probably already using audiovisual resources, but visual “eye candy” can consume so much of your attention that you don’t concentrate enough on language issues.  Consider audio-only resources, which focus your mind on listening: you immediately notice aspects of vocabulary, pronunciation, intonation, and grammar that demand your attention.

Try public radio sites like NPR.org (National Public Radio) and WNYC.org (NYC’s own station), which offer top-quality news and feature stories you can use to boost your language skills. 

ACTIVE listening with NPR.org:

a) Search for key words of interest or particular shows — click the menu icon (with three short horizontal bars); shows like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” offer new reports and stories every day, and archives of past shows.  Most features are 3-8 minutes long; choose one.

b) Listen without pausing to get acquainted with overall content.

c) Listen again and pause as needed; notice things you missed the first time.

d) Read the transcript to see how well you understood everything.  Transcripts offer immediate feedback on your listening accuracy.  Research the meanings of unfamiliar words.

e) Listen again while reading the transcript to reinforce the content in your mind and focus your ears & eyes together on language issues.  

f) Listen again, pause after each short sentence and in the middle of longer sentences, and repeat what you just heard.  Imitate pronunciation & intonation to refine your speaking skills.

g) Each day, repeat these steps; follow your instincts, adjust as needed, and trust your judgment.

PASSIVE listening with WNYC.org:

a) Subscribe to the WNYC app or other podcast platform offering WNYC content.  

b) Listen to live broadcasts while doing other things, like exercising, preparing meals, or washing dishes.  

c) Don’t worry about missing content — you’re busy and cannot possibly catch all the words.  You can miss 90% and still benefit from English streaming into your ears.  And don’t worry about transcripts when listening passively — just allow quality audiocasts to become part of your daily routine.  


This article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on December 11, 2019.