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Small talk does not have to be interesting to be effective.  But you can make it more interesting (or at least less intimidating or unpleasant) if you develop a few good conversational habits.

If you’re not a native English speaker, and you’re trying to build relationships with Americans, strengthening your small talk skills can be extremely helpful in your professional and personal life.  Americans prefer to socialize and do business with people they feel comfortable with; this sense of comfort is often established through light conversation that feels natural and effortless to them — it may take some unnatural effort and strain on your part, but this pain will diminish as you practice the tips presented below!

-1- Focus your attention and imagination on the person you want to talk to.  Imagine what interests or concerns them.  Use your powers of empathy: the ability to put yourself in another person’s place and see the world from their perspective.  Ask yourself what you and your conversation partner may have in common, and start exploring for shared interests.  If this doesn’t work, try commenting positively on something you noticed about your partner — something he or she just did, just said, is wearing, etc.:

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

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

-2- Ask questions, especially information questions (those that begin with who, what, where, when, why, and how).  Information questions elicit longer, more interesting responses than simple yes/no questions.  In fact, shy people may answer a yes/no question with a simple “Yes” or “No” and stop there.  Some of the many advantages of questions are:

  • Questions focus on the other person’s attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs, so they are a selfless way to show your interest in others.
  • Once you’ve asked a question, you’ve transferred the job of keeping the conversation going to the other person.  You can relax, listen, and learn something.  What you hear and learn will give you something new to respond to, or to follow up with a more specific question.
  • Questions allow you to steer a conversation where you want it to go.  A good conversation is often guided by good questions, so if you want to avoid “boring” conversations, take the lead by asking thoughtful questions.

-3- IMPORTANT — Ask follow-up questions/comments that seem appropriate in the moment:

“Oh really?  Why?”

“When was that?”

“Where was that?”

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

“Wow!  How did you handle that?”

Notice these follow-up questions are open-ended: they seek more than a simple “yes” or “no.”  Since they demonstrate that you are really listening and interested in learning more about the speaker, they encourage meaningful responses and help keep the conversation flowing.

-4- Be sure to respond to any question or comment your partner offers.  He/she has just made the effort to move the conversation forward, so respond generously, with some animation.  If you find yourself stuck, use a basic response such as “That’s interesting” or “So do I” (casual but common equivalent: “Me too”) or “Neither do I” (casual: “Me neither”), and then add a related question or comment to continue the small talk chain:

A: Question or comment

B: Response + question or comment

A: Response + question or comment

B: Response + question or comment


Continuing the small talk chain takes a little effort, but it’s worth it!  You’ll make a better first impression and strengthen existing relationships if you can keep these light but important conversations going … and make them seem effortless, natural, and comfortable.

-5- Beware of asking too many questions: in small talk situations, people do not want to be interrogated.  If you’ve asked three or four questions, and your partner isn’t moving the conversation forward, consider other ways to get your partner involved:

  • Shift the focus to yourself for a while.  Comment on something that you’ve been actively thinking about, and while you’re talking, try to figure out a question related to your own interests that might engage your partner.
  • Focus on what’s happening around you.  For example, comment on something you noticed or learned about another person in the room.  But avoid gossiping (sharing personal, private, or negative information about people who are not participating in your conversation).
  • Comment on an item in the room, such as a picture on the wall, a book on a shelf, an object on a table, or the scene outside the window.  If the place is bare, picture your location geographically: where are you within the neighborhood, city, region, state, or country?  Think of one interesting aspect of the place where you both are — this is something you and your conversation partner have in common — and share it.
  • If you can’t think of anything interesting, comment on how you arrived there, whether you’ve been in the area before, and ask your partner questions on such “small” topics.

-6- Prepare for situations where you may need to small talk.  Before you arrive in a place where you’ll have to make conversation, imagine what topics might be comfortable for you to mention, and consider what kind of small talk questions people might ask you.  If you’re about to meet someone important for the first time and you want to make a good first impression, rehearse possible responses to typical or expected small talk questions in advance.

For example, if you’re scheduled for a job interview, consider the possibility that the interviewer may ask a question about how you traveled to the interview location.  Now, consider the possibility that your truthful answer at that moment could be negative — but you don’t want to get trapped into making useless negative comments while trying to make a positive first impression, especially in a job interview.  So consider telling a “white lie” (an innocent untruth), and then add a positive follow-up comment.

Let’s say you experienced some difficulties getting to an interview appointment, and right at the beginning of your conversation, the interviewer asks, “How was your trip over here?”  Which of the following responses would be more appropriate?

a) “It was fine.  Your location is quite convenient.”

b) “Oh, the subway was delayed, and the first train that came was full, so I couldn’t get on, and then….”

Since this is a job interview, not a casual chat with a colleague or friend, your best interests are served by response a).  If telling such a white lie is unnatural for you, coach yourself — rehearse such comments before you need them.  Notice the additional positive comment “Your location is quite convenient,” which helps to establish an upbeat tone and keep the small talk flowing (more on this in point 5 below).

Let’s say you had difficulty locating the building where the interview was scheduled to take place, and the interviewer happens to ask, “Did you have any trouble finding our building?”  Which of these responses would be more appropriate?

a) “No, it was pretty easy.  I really like the style of this building.”

b) “Actually, I asked two people for directions and both of them pointed me in the wrong direction, so I was lost until….”

Learn with Lloyd!

For adults studying a second language, improving pronunciation accuracy and speaking effectiveness is a long-term process.  This is also true for most native speakers of English who want to fine-tune their diction, neutralize regional accents, and develop greater public speaking confidence.  Whether you’re a native or non-native speaker, whether you’re in a speech class or studying independently, you can improve your oral communication skills on your own by imitating good models.

If you’re serious about refining your speech and accent, you’ll need to practice extensively.  To be most effective, your activities must include the use of audio materials.  Active listening and repeating after a speaker is best, but passive listening — even low-attention listening while doing other things — will also help train your “ear.”

This post suggests resources that may help you refine your accent and boost your speaking confidence:

a) Online resources

b) Public speaking clubs

c) Video

d) Audiobooks

e) Radio

f) Songs and poems

g) Your own audio materials

h) Textbooks with audio components

Choose resources that seem right for you, try more than one type of material, and be ready to stop using a particular tool when you lose interest in it (you may or may not pick it up later, but it’s important to be interested in whatever materials you’re working with).  By choosing your own independent practice materials, your motivation, enthusiasm, and commitment to making progress will be stronger, and you’ll get better results.

a) Online resources for public speaking, presentation skills, and pronunciation are proliferating!  Locate the latest websites by searching with key words such as American English pronunciation, American English accent, accent reduction, ESL listening exercises, public speaking improvement, improving presentation skills, or other phrases that apply to your specific interests.  Your own customized search of relevant sites is the best approach here.  Just to get you started, here’s a site that features an animated audiovisual guide to the vowel and consonant sounds of American English, developed by the University of Iowa: http://www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/phonetics.

You’ve probably noticed that many online dictionaries have a pronunciation feature.  One well-known example is http://www.dictionary.com.

Also consider using the Internet for high-quality video content, which you can use in many ways to improve your listening and speaking skillssee section c) Video (below).

b) Public speaking clubs may be useful to you.  Contact a club near you, such as a local chapter of Toastmasters International, a network of public speaking clubs that ordinary people attend to boost their skills and confidence.  Toastmasters clubs exist around the world; you can even start your own club (see link to website below).  Some clubs in the New York area may have been formed by non-native English speakers, and the spirit of cooperation and support at any public speaking club means non-natives should be welcome.  For more information, visit http://www.toastmasters.org.

A local club is likely to welcome potential new members, allowing you a chance to get acquainted with the process before joining.  When you’re comfortable and ready, you can plan to make your own practice presentation.

c) Video materials are fun for entertainment, but they can be wonderful learning tools too.  Your independent study task is simple: study selected scenes or dialog lines again and again!

The advantage of video is that it provides visual context for the speech you’re studying: the who, what, where, when, and why of the speaking situation are relatively clear and quickly assimilated.  The disadvantage is that video can distract you from the audio component, which is the real target material for speech/pronunciation study.

Browse the Internet for high-quality video recordings of lectures on topics that interest you.  A good place to start is TED.com.  You can turn on subtitles to ensure you catch every word; then, after you’ve listened 2-3 times, you can turn them off to test your listening comprehension.  For speech fluency and pronunciation practice, pause the playback and repeat phrases (parts of sentences) and even entire sentences after the speakers.

Or borrow from your library (or rent) DVDs of American movies and television shows of interest.  Live TV isn’t nearly as helpful as recorded programs and movies, which allow you to stop, pause, and repeat: you need to have control over your materials to get the most out of them.  Select a scene with a lot of dialog that you’d like to study.  Get familiar with it by watching a couple of times, and then watch it several more times while pausing the playback to repeat after each speaker.  I recommend activating subtitles or closed captions to catch every word.  You may enjoy challenging yourself by listening without captions, but you can do this when watching the entire movie or show, or as a review or self-test.  For selected scene study, at least during your first few repetitions, you are likely to benefit from seeing the words you’re practicing (however, be ready for discrepancies: some captions do not precisely match the actual words spoken).

An additional exercise that is especially useful for English language learners is playing and pausing the scene slowly enough to write down all the words spoken by the actors.  This will allow you to:

-1- Process the English thoroughly, studying idioms, vocabulary, and grammar used in natural conversation

-2- Create your own written script for pronunciation practice.

Movie scripts are often available free on the Internet, but they have some disadvantages: They may be inaccurate or early versions of the script that lack changes made as the film was actually shot and edited, and they encourage you to skip the writing exercise described above — creating your own copy of the script by listening to the actors and reading the subtitles — which is a valuable language learning activity.

d) Audiobooks on CD or in other downloadable media are useful.  If you’re focused on American English, look for audiobooks of recent fiction or non-fiction by American authors.  You might choose books on topics related to your professional or personal interests, or try a novel with extensive dialog, even if it may not be considered “great literature.”  Dialog is particularly useful for speech study, since it represents the way people speak (as opposed to write).  Classic novels written many years ago may be worthwhile if you have a particular interest in them, but be aware that some of the language will be outdated.

As you get started using audiobooks, I highly recommend borrowing material from your school or local public library instead of buying audio products, because you’ll probably need to experiment to see what works for you.  New audiobooks can be expensive, so experiment first with free material.

Your audiobook-study experience will depend partly on your reaction to the voice actors who read the text aloud.  For example, some of these readers speak fast to minimize the length of the audio, which could be irritating.  (Of course, you may be able to compensate for this problem by slowing or pausing the playback.)  Some voice actors will speak in British accents or even imitate non-English accents for dramatic effect, which may not be ideal for someone focusing on U.S. English.  On the back cover of the audiobook package, notice who the reader is — you may prefer to listen to a certain type of voice (male/female, young/old, book author/professional actor).

Be sure to get the print version of the book and use it sometimes with the audiobook, and sometimes without it.  Be aware that many audiobooks, especially business books, are “condensed” or “abridged,” which means some sentences in the print version are not included in the audio version.  If possible, choose an “unabridged” version so that the recording corresponds exactly to the text.

A paid audiobook service worth considering is audible.com, which offers a monthly subscription and access to thousands of audio files, including newspapers.  A paid subscription sites may offer a free trial, allowing you to download a recording to see how you like the service.  You can search such sites for particular authors or types of material; for example, if you particularly like short stories, you might search for “stories” to see some recent works.

e) Radio talk shows can be useful for listening/speaking practice.  For excellent public radio talk programs with few commercial interruptions, try National Public Radio: NPR.org.  NPR programs offer a wide variety of content, and many come with written transcripts that are useful to study along with the audio recordings.  (On the NPR home page, you can search for “Transcripts” to find programs with ready-to-read text versions.)

New York City’s NPR stations WNYC FM 93.9 and WNYC AM 820 provide excellent live-radio programming for NYC-area residents.  Listeners anywhere in the world can access past programs online at WNYC.org (many programs are of national and international interest).

Remember: your active control over audio materials is essential to maximize their effectiveness — use the pause button on the audio player to stop the playback and repeat after the speakers!

f) Songs and poems have a magic quality that goes beyond everyday speech.  Melody and rhythm can help you learn and remember the sounds of words.

Study songs that you like, sung by singers with clear enunciation: the clear articulation of sounds.  Folk songs can be especially useful — the words are often considered as important as the music, so folk singers deliver lyrics relatively clearly.

Practice singing songs with — and without — the written lyrics.  Many lyrics to popular songs are available online at sites like lyricsfreak.com.

If you like poetry, consider memorizing and reciting a short poem that is meaningful to you.  Search the Internet or your library for recorded readings and texts of recent or modern American poetry to ensure that the language is contemporary, not old-fashioned.

g) Your own audio materials can give you insights into your own strengths and weaknesses.  Consider recording yourself reading aloud at home, then listen closely to identify issues that may need adjustment, and practice making those adjustments as you pause the playback.  Choose any materials that interest you for such practice readings, especially materials designed to be spoken aloud, such as dialogs, presentation scripts, and speech transcripts.

A “self-dictation” can help you build your self-correcting abilities, not just for pronunciation but for grammar and word choice as well.  First, audio-record yourself reading a text or speaking spontaneously about a topic that interests you.  Then play back the recording and make notes on pronunciation errors and needed corrections.  (If you spoke spontaneously, without a text, make notes on grammar and word choice edits, in addition to accent issues.)  Next, read and record again with the adjustments you made, and make more changes if needed.  Repeat this process a third time, and you’ll know you’ve improved your speech!

Audio recording software may already exist in your computer, which you can use by installing a microphone.  You may also find a digital voice recorder practical since it’s small, portable, and relatively affordable (Olympus offers a good one for about $90).  Such devices can be useful to record lectures, business meetings, and other events in your life that may require your close attention, but be sure to ask for permission before recording other people speaking.

h) Textbooks with audio components can be excellent tools.  Academic textbooks on pronunciation are usually more thorough and consistent than commercially packaged accent improvement products that are widely available in bookstores and online.  Before buying a textbook, look through several to find one that seems right for you.  Browse — in person — the current items on the shelf at a bookstore that has a textbook department or ESL section.  Here are two examples of recently published academic textbooks packaged with audio CDs; they are designed for intermediate speakers, but their exercises offer useful review for advanced speakers too:

CLEAR SPEECH: Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension in North American English — Student’s Book, 3rd Edition [Student Edition] by Judy B. Gilbert, © 2005 Cambridge University Press.

Focus on Pronunciation 1, Beginning (2nd Edition) by Linda Lane(higher levels available: Focus on Pronunciation 2 and 3), © 2004 Pearson ESL.

My favorite textbook for pronunciation has not been updated with an audio CD, but just for your interest, here it is:  ACCURATE ENGLISH: A Complete Course in Pronunciation, ©1993 by Rebecca M. Dauer, published by Prentice Hall Regents.

Learn with Lloyd!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.

Remember that 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!

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

Enjoy learning!