Small talk changes slightly when you're with strangers as opposed to people at a business function or party. Strangers, in this case, refers to people you don't know who you see out and about somewhere in the course of your daily routine. Since you don't know a thing about them, choose general subjects that allow anyone to comment on.
What's the benefit to chatting with strangers? It gives you practice for those times in life (like first dates or important business functions) where you'll need to make a really great impression. If you're used to talking with people on a routine basis, you won't be tripped up when you're nervous. Also, as Will Rogers once said, "A stranger is just a friend I haven't met yet." You never know how friendships will develop, so it's a good idea to be prepared to make the most of any opportunity.
Here are some ice breakers that work well with strangers.
Comment on Something in the News
Avoid topics like politics, sex, or religion, as those topics are more suited for conversation between friends. Instead, bring up a popular subject that has been getting a lot of play in the news. It's a good idea to read the paper or go online to check out the latest newsworthy topics before you leave the house so you're prepared with something to say.
Compliment an Accessory Item
Another tactic to open up small talk is to compliment the accessories someone is wearing: jewelry, glasses, purse, shoes, watch, tie, cuff links, pins, etc. Avoid making a comment about someones clothing as it can come off as if you're acting weird or hitting on him or her. Making a genuine comment about an accessory is much more acceptable.
Ask About Their Phone
Everyone seems to have a cell phone, computer, or other gadget on hand these days, so ask someone if they are using an iPhone or Bluetooth headset and how they like it. They're likely to tell you if they would buy the same thing again or give you the name of another version they can recommend instead. People enjoy talking about their gadgets, so it won't be difficult to get them to open up.
Small Talk Standby: The Weather
The weather is often mentioned as something you should avoid when making small talk, but I think it is still a good opener with strangers, if you use some detail. Rather than say, "Nice weather we're having," say instead, "What a warm day it turned out to be! What are you doing this afternoon? Are you able to get out and enjoy it?"
Or, ask them about something regarding the weather, like: "I wasn't able to find out if it was going to rain. We've got a picnic coming up so I sure hope not. Did you happen to catch the forecast?"
Ask someone if they can suggest a good restaurant for lunch or dinner. Say something like, "I'm taking my friend to lunch for her birthday tomorrow. Do you know a good place?" Or, "We need to find a fun but reasonably priced place to take my mom out for her birthday. Do you have a suggestion?"
Asking where to eat will generally prompt someone to give you the scoop on their favorite places, which usually comes attached with more personal information, such as the parties they planned there, the fact that they go there every year for a special event, or why they like the atmosphere. They might recommend a restaurant and then add, "We go there all the time!" or "We just took my aunt there last week and she loved it." You can ask them more questions based on what they say, and this will help you continue the conversation.