A good conversationalist strikes a perfect balance between talking and listening. They pick up threads to create a multi-layered conversation and a sense of intimacy; the other person feels reassured that they are listening and interested.
It is important to set the conversation off well. Try to think of an alternative to the usual 'how are you' or 'what do you do?'. Gentle humour, shared observation, flattery and the occasional well-placed compliment will all stimulate conversation.
If your hostess or the person who has introduced you has given you a helpful clue then follow that up. Otherwise you may want to ask how the person you are talking to knows the host or hostess or try an old royal standby, ‘have you come far?’. You can mention the weather or, if you are at a party or an event, make a general comment about the scene. Sport, or a recent sporting event is also a good ice-breaker.
‘Where are you from?’, which is standard in America, or ‘What do you do?’ were traditionally seen as too direct in Britain, so it is best to be more circumspect.
Do not be afraid of sounding dull. Good eye contact and a ready smile will enliven any conversation. The key thing is to give the other person an easy opportunity to respond. Once the conversation has got going remember to take turns and to listen.
Ask questions, but don't conduct an aggressive interview - there is a fine line between interest and intrusion. Familiarity comes with time, so be aware of unspoken barriers. At the same time it is not unreasonable to try to find common ground by asking rather indirect questions.
Never talk about money, illness or death, steer clear of religion and politics and don’t talk shop to people other than colleagues. It is unwise to make assumptions, for example that everyone may have the same background or views as yourself.
Wait until you know someone better before being braver with topics. Trying to be controversial on purpose is really just showing off. One-upmanship is unattractive and can just make you seem insecure rather than impressive. Social interaction is not meant to be a competition.