Continuing with the theme of guest posts, I am delighted to introduce you to yet another guest writer here on EWAT. This time I have the pleasure of welcoming Jacob Gershkovich, a fellow English teacher. In his interesting and super useful post, Jacob brilliantly illustrates how you can make a good impression and enjoy a good conversation with business colleagues even if you feel your English could be better. This is ideal for anyone who wants to feel more confident in business small talk.

Enjoy the post.


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Listen to the post

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Let’s imagine that you’re at a networking event. You see someone standing across the room who you’d really like to connect with, someone who could be really helpful to know. You want to introduce yourself to this person and begin a conversation, but you don’t feel confident as an English speaker. You’re worried that you won’t be able to express yourself properly in English, or even worse, that you’ll say something silly and embarrass yourself.

How do we make good impressions on people when there is a language barrier? How do we say the right things to get people to like us?

In this post I’m going to try and answer these questions and teach you how to feel CONFIDENT having conversations in English, even if your English level isn’t that high.

It all comes down to doing two things well—asking the right questions and listening—which we will talk about in detail a little later.

To begin, though, it’s necessary to look at how conversations work in general, especially conversations where one person is trying to impress another person.

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One mistake that many of us make

Most people think that in order to make a good impression on someone, you have to do a lot of the talking. It make sense: when we want someone to like us, we want the other person to see our value (whether it’s our potential as a business partner, romantic partner, friend, etc.), so we think that we must tell them interesting things about ourselves in order to convince them that we are valuable.

Here’s a very common example:
A man is on a date with a woman who he really likes. He really wants this woman to like him too, so he spends the entire evening saying things that he hopes the woman will find impressive. More often than though, the woman becomes bored and in her mind she can’t wait for the date to end.

Here’s the truth about meeting people and making good first impressions: you really don’t need to say that much; you just need to do these two important things well—ask good questions and shut up and listen. (Okay, three things: smile if you can.)

Good conversation is all about asking good questions then shutting up and listeningClick To Tweet

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“I” am the most important person in the world

I’ve got a task for you. If you live in an English speaking country this will be great listening practice; if you don’t, it’s okay—this will still work.

The next time you’re out in a public place (a mall, on the bus, or wherever), take some time to listen to the different conversations that people around you are having, whether they’re happening in English or in your native tongue. While you’re listening, I want you to notice how often people use the pronoun, “I”.

I was at the gym last week. Beside me were two people running on a treadmill. They were having a conversation, and I was listening. It went like this:

Person 1: I have to make sure I’m at the bank before 4 o’clock. Otherwise the lines are so long!

Person 2: Yeah, I have to go home quickly to take the dog out after this. I’m meeting Jack at 3:30.

Person 1: Oh, really? Yeah, I’ve just been so busy these days. I feel like I don’t have time to do anything!

Person 2: Ach, I know. I feel like I need a vacation.


Did you notice anything about this dialogue? What is the most common word that both of these people used? Of course, it is “I”.

In 2012, researchers from Harvard University found that people experienced increased activity in the reward centres of their brain when sharing information about themselves! They also found that when faced with the choice to answer questions about themselves, other people or neutral facts, people much preferred to answer questions about themselves.

What does this mean? It means that we LOVE to talk about ourselves. It also means that the person you would like to start a conversation with at that networking conference probably likes to talk about him or herself too.

So, if you want to make a good impression on someone during a conversation, why not talk about the one thing that person values and enjoys talking about most—themselves?  And how do you do that?

You ask the right questions and you shut up and listen.

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If you don’t feel confident speaking English (or even if you do), this should be great news! It means that you can talk less, listen more, and still succeed at making a great first impression.

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How to ask the right questions

What are good questions to ask when you’re meeting someone for the first time and you want that person to like you?

Let’s start by looking at an example of a VERY COMMON scenario. First I’ll present a dialogue that is quite ordinary and boring; next we’ll look at how to make it more interesting.

Scenario: You’re at a networking conference. You’ve just begun talking to someone you want to impress.

You: So, what do you do?

P1: I’m an accountant.

You: Oh, do you like it?

P1: Yes, I do. It’s really great.

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What’s wrong with this?

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First, here’s a quick tip: Try not to use the question, “What do you do?” It is very plain and boring and way too many people use it. It is also very restrictive; it does not allow the person you’re speaking with much freedom with their answer. You are forcing them to choose a few words to describe ALL of the work they do. I know many people who hate being asked this question.

A much better question you can ask in this situation is What brings you to this event?” OR “What brings you here today? Another fun one you could ask is, “What’s your story?

Maybe they are attending the event because their boss wants them to be there. Or maybe they are interested in one of the speakers; or maybe they want to grow their network and meet other people. The point is that your question allows the other person to answer more freely.

They are not restricted to saying, “I’m a [insert boring job title].”


Let’s move on to the next part of the dialogue: Why is it bad to ask, “Do you like your job?”

Here’s another quick tip when you’re meeting someone: Avoid asking yes/no questions (a question to which the only possible answer is “Yes” or “No”). Again, you want to invite the other person to share things about themselves, and in order to do this you must ask questions that allow the other person the freedom to do so.

Here is a MUCH BETTER way to phrase the question, “Do you like your job?

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What do you like about your job?

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“What do you like about your job,” is a much more challenging question to answer. You’re asking the other person to think about why they enjoy what they do and to share that information with you. And people love to talk about things they enjoy!

So, let’s return to the initial dialogue and make it much more interesting:


You: What brings you here?

P1: My job. I’m a marketing specialist at Globex International.

You: Marketing—that sounds challenging. What do you like about it?

P1: Well, I enjoy coming to conferences like this and getting to meet people from around the world! It also challenges me to think creatively, which I really enjoy.

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You can now keep the conversation going with more great questions!


You: What led you to marketing?

P1: I studied communications when I was in college, and I’ve just always enjoyed speaking to new people and making connections. It really is a great fit for me.


Another good thing about the “What do you like about ____” question is that you can use it for any subject.

If someone tells you that they just saw a movie, for example:

P1: I actually went to see Black Swan last night.

You: Really? What did you enjoy about it?

P1: Oh, so many things! The cinematography was amazing. And Natalie Portman was so good. You should really go see it!

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Here is a list of more great questions that you can ask people!

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How did you get into [insert profession]?
Ex: How did you get into photography?

What led to your interest in [insert interest]?
Ex: What led to your interest in journalism?

What is the most interesting thing going on in the world of [insert topic]
Ex: What is the most interesting thing going on in the world of internet marketing?

What was your favourite part of [insert experience]?
Ex: What was your favourite part of the trip?

What was the best thing about [insert experience]?
Ex: What was the best thing about working at Globex?

What was it like [insert thing that the other person did]?
Ex: What was it like traveling alone through Asia?

What fun things did you do while you were in [insert place]?
Ex: What fun things did you do while you were in Hawaii?

Why did you choose to go to [insert country]?
Ex: Why did you choose to go to Russia?

How do you all know each other? (This one is great if you’re with a group of people who you have just met!)

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How to shut up and listen

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The second important thing you must do is shut up and listen.

Listening is not as easy as most people think. Too often we don’t let other people finish speaking; we interrupt them, or we assume that we understand what they mean when in reality we have no idea. Very often, we’re quick to jump to conclusions.

So the first tip in this section really is to shut up. Don’t speak when the other person is speaking. Let them finish. Even if you have something really amazing you want to share—wait for the other person to finish. It may seem silly to say, but it really is a lot harder than it seems.

The next step is to show the person with whom you’re speaking that you are indeed listening. And here is one excellent way to do this: Repeat what the person has already said.

Let’s look at an example from the earlier conversation:

You: What brings you here?

P1: My job. I’m a marketing specialist at Globex International.

You: Marketing—that sounds challenging. What do you like about it?

P1: Well, I enjoy coming to conferences like this and getting to meet people from around the world! It also challenges me to think creatively, which I really enjoy.

You: So you enjoy meeting new people and you like to think creatively. Are you working on any creative projects right now?


See what happened there? You repeated what P1 said earlier. This shows that you’re listening actively, and more importantly, that you’re trying really hard to understand P1.

This is especially important if you don’t feel confident as an English speaker! Don’t feel embarrassed to try and ask the person to explain themselves again. Really! Just ask.


P1: Well, I enjoy coming to conferences like this and getting to meet people from around the world! It also challenges me to think creatively, which I really enjoy.

You: Sorry. I’m still learning English. Do you mean you enjoy meeting new people and you like to think creatively?

P1: Yes, that’s right!

You: Are you working on any creative projects right now?


People don’t care if your English isn’t perfect. They care that you are trying to understand them and that you are showing a genuine interest in who they are! And if you can demonstrate this to them by asking good questions and listening, then it doesn’t matter if your grammar skills are not that great—people are going to like you regardless of them.

[ctt template=”8″ link=”fq440″ via=”no” ]You can close more business in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you. – Dale Carnegie [/ctt]


If you found these tips helpful and would like to know more about what you can do to improve as an English speaker, there is a FREE eBook, “4 Things You Must Do To Get Better At Speaking English,” that is available on my website.


About Jacob Gershkovich

Jacob is an English teacher and a new blogger at

He helps people become more confident speaking English and presents English language lessons that examine how English is used to express culture, art, and society.


Thank you so much, Jacob for an excellent post.

Before you go….

If you’d like to feel more confident and comfortable in business small talk in English, be sure to check out my e-book + workbook + audiobook “Small Talk To Go”.



Ciao for now