A few well-chosen props can spark conversation at your next gathering, says Margaret Shepherd, author of "The Art of Civilized Conversation"...

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A few well-chosen props can spark conversation at your next gathering, says Margaret Shepherd, author of “The Art of Civilized Conversation” (Broadway Books, $16).

She recommends having these on hand:

The latest best-seller. A well-known book can start a conversation, even if no one’s read it. Someone’s likely to ask what the hype’s about, and you’re off and running.

A photo album. Include photos that will interest your guests, such as pictures of people they know or places they’ve been, group photos that include them or photos of you with a mutually admired friend.

An exotic flower. Be ready for the inevitable comment with a response that keeps the conversation going, such as an explanation of where you got the flower.

A musical instrument. Any instrument other than a piano, which people see as furniture, invites people to ask about your training, performances, taste in music and childhood experiences.

If someone asks you to perform, thank the person and promise to play later — but don’t, unless you’re pressed again. A host’s performance stops the conversation.

A collection. It opens the door to a conversation on how you got interested in the items, where you found them, what your criteria are and so on. (Avoid talk of prices.)

Once you’ve responded to your guests’ questions, turn the conversation to their own collections.