And interestingly, the people who are really good at it do very little talking. Let me explain.
Roxanne Roberts, social columnist for the "Washington Post", recently wrote about what a valuable skill small talk really is--and she should know, because her job depends on it.
Her number one rule: keep quiet and listen. And by listening, she means really paying attention, facing your partner directly, looking them in the eye, and leaning into the conversation. It's something that will encourage even the most shy person to start sharing.
Roberts says it's important in any social situation to introduce yourself, even if the person might know you. Say something like, "Hi, I'm John. I'm not sure we've met before. I'm a friend of Jane's from the university." It will set people at ease if they remember you, for example, but can't quite recall your name.
Next, keep the topics simple. Successful chit-chat involves asking questions, then really listening, and responding with open-ended questions. "You're going to London! How exciting. I love the shops. Do you have a favorite?"
Resist babbling on about your own experiences. That only brings the conversation back to you. Your goal is to get the other person to open up. Also, don't be greedy. Let the person you're talking with dictate the length of the conversation. By doing so, you'll be greeted warmly by the person the next time you see him, because he'll see you as a pleasant conversationalist   not a windbag.
Roberts tells a famous story about two men, and the power of good conversation. Legend has it, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his political rival William Gladstone had a date with the same woman on different nights. When asked her impression of the two men, she said, "When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England."
Keep that in mind, the next time you're making the rounds at a party.