#309: How to Go Off Topic in English | English Conversation Skills

Apr 17, 2024 | Business Professional English, Communication Skills

The art of going off-topic in conversation. 

I know, that’s a bit unusual, 

If you’ve watched previous lessons of mine, including How to Lead a Business Meeting in English, then you’ve heard me say it is BEST to avoid going off-topic in English conversations. 

Typically, it’s disruptive. It can indicate a lack of focus and create confusion.

But life is full of surprises. Sometimes, a sudden reminder or a spark of memory can lead us down a different path in our conversations.

So understanding when and how to go off-topic is oh-so-important for your English conversations and, believe it or not, even in business meetings. 

When the timing and relevance are just right, going off-topic is perfectly okay. 

In fact, when done right, going off-topic might lead to added depth and interest in the conversation. Or spark creativity when problem-solving.

I’m going to help you get going off-topic just right. 

We’re going to explore the how and when of going off-topic gracefully, especially when something pops up that you just can’t ignore. 

We’ll uncover the secrets to doing this without losing your listener’s interest or coming off as rude. It’s all about balancing relevance and relatability, making your conversations more natural, engaging, and, yes, even more productive.

Whether you’re chatting with friends, participating in an English conversation club, or sitting in a business meeting, understanding when it’s appropriate to take a little detour can enhance your communication skills, build rapport, and sometimes, it can lead to the most memorable and meaningful discussions.

WATCH THE LESSON

How to Go Off Topic in English

When to Go Off Topic

To get started, let’s consider several circumstances when it may be perfectly appropriate to go off topic. It can be especially useful when:

  • the conversation has gone on too long about 1 topic in particular;
  • you have no interest in a particular topic;
  • you’re unfamiliar with a topic
  • you want to share something you’ve just remembered;
  • you want to share something important before you forget.
  • when there’s a pause or an awkward silence in a conversation. 
  • when a topic has hit a dead-end and there’s nothing left to say about it.

 

What to Consider Before Going Off Topic

When you’re in a conversation and facing one of those circumstances, here are a few things to consider before you interrupt and take the plunge into a different topic:

 

  1. Consider whether the topic is appropriate for the person and environment. If you’re at work, for example, you may not want to start abruptly talking about politics. 
  2. Is the other person sharing something vulnerable or heartfelt? If so, changing the topic could come across as insensitive.
  3. Consider group expectations. If you’re in a meeting or a class, it’s likely that time constraints and goals will limit the possibility of going off topic. 
  4. Always remember to maintain a balance. Veering off topic too often could make others feel unheard.

Common Phrases for Going Off Topic

  • This is off topic but… 
  • Sorry to cut you off, but I just remembered/this reminded me of…
  • Oh, by the way, did I tell you what happened at/on/in…?
  • This is totally unrelated, but…
  • I’ve been thinking about X… What are your thoughts on it?
  • This is off topic, but could I ask you something?
  • Before I forget…
  • Speaking of which…
  • On a positive/sad note…
  • In other news…
  • On that note…
  • That reminds me…
  • Anyway, I wanted to tell you…
  • Funny you should mention that..
  • This is kinda off topic but…

With these common phrases in mind, let’s walk through some scenarios to understand how we can use these phrases and the different ways to go off topic.

Strategy 1: Acknowledge and Go Off Topic

Depending on the speaker and the situation, you may not always know whether it’s ok to go off topic.

This could be especially true if you’ve been talking at length about something they’re interested in or if the person is expressing something vulnerable.

At that point, when it seems as if the other person finished sharing a thought (usually 2-3 seconds of silence follows) or when it’s your turn to speak, you can:

Acknowledge the point and transition.

Scenario #1: Imagine your friend is telling you about changes at work and her feelings of frustration. After some time, you may feel like changing the topic to lighten the mood. 

Friend: I used to love working there, but with my current workload, I can’t also train the new person. I need to speak to my manager on Monday.

You: That’s definitely frustrating, and I think sharing that with your manager is the right step. Let me know how it goes. Speaking of work, did you hear about Jessica from middle school? She joined my company as the new sales manager. 

Strategy #2: Apologize and Go Off Topic

Sometimes individuals in the conversation may be in the middle of a conversation and unready to move on. But you’ve suddenly remembered something that you need to share before you forget. 

In this case, it may not be possible to wait for complete silence, and it’s a good idea to:

Apologize before going off topic

Scenario #2: Perhaps, in a team meeting, a coworker mentions that refining the target customer is a goal for 2024. As everyone discusses ways to do this, it reminds you of outstanding tasks for a new ad campaign that you want to share before you forget. 

Coworker: I also think we can revisit the qualities and needs we envision in our target customers. This will give us ideas for shifting our marketing and website copy.

You: Sorry to cut you off, but this reminded me of the new ad campaign our team is developing. Could we please carve out some time in today’s meeting to discuss that?

Strategy #3: Signal & Compliment Before Going Off Topic

Sometimes, you may not know much about a topic or feel a little bored by the conversation. This can also be true when conversing with someone about something that isn’t particularly important. 

When this is the case, and you’re ready to change the topic, you can use Strategy #1 OR:

Signal, compliment, and go off topic

Scenario #3: Imagine you’ve just met someone at a networking event. They’re telling you about their field of expertise, and you feel that there isn’t much you can share about it. You might decide to focus on something they shared earlier instead. 

Acquaintance: Although it’s important to emphasize a better user experience, sometimes I prioritize the user interface. Good design can ultimately reduce potential problems, and I love thinking through design options.

You: This is slightly off topic, but could I ask you something? While I’m not an expert on user experience, I appreciate your focus on design. What designs do you find both aesthetically pleasing and practical? I love anything minimalistic. 

 

Scenario #4: Imagine you’re at a party and someone you’ve just met keeps talking about their children. You may not have children, or be interested in talking about children. 

Person: My kids love to watch “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” It’s their favorite show!

You: Sorry, this is totally unrelated, but I love the dress you’re wearing. It reminds me of the one Keira Knightley wore in “Atonement.” Have you watched that movie?

Strategy #4: Change the Topic

When there’s a lull in the conversation, awkwardness because neither of you knows what to say, or it’s simply time to move on to the next topic, it’s okay be direct and:

Change the topic

Scenario #5: Perhaps, you’re speaking to the parent of your child’s classmate. You’re both waiting to pick up your children, and after making some small talk about the kids, there’s now an awkward silence. At this point, you might decide to change the topic.

Classmate’s Mom: We’ll have to see how the year goes with this teacher. Like you said, she seems rather nice.  

~Long Silence~

You: Oh, in other news, did you hear about the recall of those fruity yogurt packs? My kids live on those. Luckily, I found out about the recall just before my grocery run yesterday. 

 

Scenario #6: Imagine you’ve scheduled an hour to meet with a client and go through paperwork with them. After explaining each section and the service expectations, you realize you have about 10 minutes left before your next meeting. 

Client: Ok, I understand now. Thank you for walking me through the pages.

You: No problem. On that note, if there are no other question, please go ahead and sign Page 1 and Page 3. I’ll provide you with a copy for your records via email. 

After you’ve watched the video, consider this:

Think back to a time when you needed to go off topic. What would you change about the way you went off topic? Which strategy would you use?

You can share with me in the comment section below.

~ Annemarie

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