Social event: check. Standing in the corner creepily observing guests hoping someone will come over: check.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that staring people into a conversation doesn’t work. Quite the opposite, in fact. But what if you’re just not social?
Here’s the thing. Founder of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Ramit Sethi, has discovered something influencers and easy communicators already know: Being a better conversationalist is a skill. And if it’s a skill, you can learn it. Let’s get started with our best tips for improving your conversational skills!
1. Write a script
The perfect conversation starter depends on the situation and where you find yourself. For some reason, we tend to gravitate to the cliched, “So what do you do?”, which might help you launch a conversation, but it makes people feel ick.
Not everyone wants to be defined by their job, more importantly, a social event allows them to step away from their corporate work for a change. So instead of defaulting to the weather or what the other person does to pay the bills, how about getting to know them first?
Here are three simple scripts you can use to start a conversation:
- What brought you here?
- Hi, I’m [YOUR NAME].
- How do you know the host?
Do these seem dead simple? Good. Conversation starters should be simple! Your script doesn’t have to be Shakespearean in nature – it just has to open the door for good conversation to flow.
2. Practice your social skills
If you’re not great in social situations, you need to practice in order to improve. It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to get better. It also helps if you have fun with it! No need to take yourself too seriously.
- Step 1 – The Mirror: Yes, there will be mirror work. It’s important that you have your first go at practicing your scripts in front of the mirror. Are you smiling? Is the smile any good, or do you resemble Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining? Do you seem approachable?
- Step 2 – The Camera: Use the broom or your kid’s giant teddy as a prop and practice those skills while recording on your smartphone. While it may seem strange at first, playback will reveal whether you’re asking too many questions, talking too fast, or even whether you have that dull expression and one-tone-drone that will scare away even the most desperate conversationalist at the party.
- Step 3 – The Interaction: You’re going to take this to the next level and meet an actual person. Then you’re going to ask another person to film it. Meet at a bar or coffee shop to make it a little more interesting. Interacting with an actual human being will go a long way in determining any social killers. Check your posture, whether you’re blocking conversation, and if you’re applying the script effectively.
3. Start at small, personal gatherings
Before running a marathon, it’s worth taking a jog around the neighborhood to make sure your lungs and legs can cope. Then, build up slowly until the full race feels achievable.
The same with social skills. Don’t wait until that all-important business networking meetup to test your scripts. Use it on smaller events like the neighborhood cookout, a birthday party, even a small wedding.
The key is to build your skills before you jump into a major soiree.
4. Put your script to practice
While a script will help you get things started, only practice will enable you to gracefully enter and exit a conversation without being obvious. Or weird.
Here are the tools you need to start, join, and hold a conversation.
Start a conversation
Look for that one person standing by themselves, possibly in the opposite corner. Approach them and introduce yourself. Now, this is the fun part, you’re going to smile and you’re going to use one of those three conversation starters, or even all three.
Reminder on the conversation starter scripts:
- What brought you here?
- Hi, I’m [YOUR NAME].
- How do you know the host?
Just pretend that you’re meeting a potential future friend or colleague.
Join a conversation in progress
You might have to eavesdrop a little to get this one right. The best part about eavesdropping at a social event is that it happens to be a great conversation starter. Introduce yourself by saying, “I couldn’t help overhearing that you guys are discussing cause and effect in early childhood development. I’ve just completed this great course, you guys might have heard of it. By the way, I’m John.”
Hold the conversation
“So how do you know Sally?” you ask. “We met in high school,” they respond. “Oh cool.” you kill the conversation.
Questions are a natural way to let the conversation take a different direction and allow you to build rapport with the other party. Even if it includes a little bit of small talk. Not every conversation has to be about big philosophical life questions. Some conversations can be about whether bulletproof coffee has run its course or whether pineapple belongs on a pizza (although that last one may cause spirited debate).
But be warned. No one likes feeling interrogated. So tweak your script with a few guidelines:
- Don’t ask too many questions.
- Make a statement reflecting on what they responded (Oh I never thought about that. That’s an interesting approach).
- Only ask, “What do you do?” if it’s relevant, and please, for the love of keeping your conversation going, don’t lead with it.
5. Psyche yourself up
You’ve done about five outfit changes and read just about every book you can on how to improve your conversation skills, yet you’re still sweaty-palmed and dry-mouthed at social gatherings. You bristle like a porcupine when anyone comes near you, even though you actually crave the distraction of conversation.
Here’s the thing. You can get those nerves under control. What’s more, you’re not going to need five scotches and a beer to do it.
- It starts at home: Psyching yourself up starts before you even get to the event. You’re going to wear a smashing outfit, take time with your appearance, and talk to yourself in the mirror. Tell yourself how great it’s going to be, and be happy to have an opportunity to make real connections.
- Give yourself enough time to get there: Want to know how to instantly increase the suck when you’re nervous about a social event? Be late. Don’t be early either. That sucks too and will increase the chances of you choosing a creepy corner to wait out the time.
- Breathe: One of the best ways to instantly make yourself feel better, is by taking long, controlled breaths. This will help you regulate that racing heartbeat and hopefully take care of the sweaty palms too. Look for well-ventilated spots such as balconies or patios.
- Smile: Just a gentle, upturned mouth that touches your eyes. Not only does this make you seem more approachable, but it also lets you feel better.
- Be confident: Confidence is attractive and even if you’re not feeling it, fake it until you do. And why the heck shouldn’t you be? You have the perfect scripts for these things and you’re excited to test them out, aren’t you?
- Be willing to flake once in a while: Not every social encounter at every event is going to work out. Heck, it’s guaranteed not to because we’re all so different. But that’s what makes this great. Every time you put yourself out there, you learn. You start adapting your scripts, body language, and even mannerisms to make new meets more comfortable. But you’re not going to ace it at the first try every time. You’re going to get shut down and ignored. You’re going to leave some events feeling a little underwhelmed. What’s important is that you learn to read the room and slowly build those social skills.
6. Master your body language
Master these body language hacks, and you’ll be amazed at how strongly and positively they impact the people around you.
How to improve: This week, when you greet someone, try smiling more than you normally would. Think about your best friend. Think about the funniest situation you’ve ever encountered. Whatever it takes to get that smile.
Notice the difference between a smile with no emotion behind it and a smile when you are thinking about your best friend doing something hilarious. Way different, right? The boring smile makes you look crazy or fake, while the other smile makes you happy. That’s what you want to do every time.
How to improve: Take whatever energy level you’re at now and add 50% more energy. Test it in small, anonymous places like at a coffee shop. See what kind of reactions you get. Then work up to using it at work and with your friends. You’ll be amazed at the difference.
How to improve: If you’re a fast talker, try forcing yourself to slow down by at least 50% It will feel sluggish to you but perfect for everyone else. One easy hack to help you slow down is to focus on enunciating your words
Use your hands
How to improve: First, make a mental note of how you currently use your hands. Then test different ways of using them. Notice how the more you use your hands, the more open your body language becomes.
The result: The more open your body language is, the more welcoming and confident people will think you are.
How to improve: we have two suggestions for improving how you use eye contact:
- Study people who make you feel comfortable. What do they do with their eyes when they speak to you? You’ll discover they don’t just continue staring at you for minutes at a time. They look away, they smile, they take a look at what’s in their hand. They’ll do all kinds of things but they’ll come back to you. This is something you can learn to do.
- Experiment. Treat eye contact like a game. Try looking at people for 5 seconds and see what evokes the best response. Then try it for 10 seconds. Once you test this enough, you will find what works best for you.
7. Learn from the pros
Ever try to bake a souffle from the recipe and it turned out a dud, but watched a YouTube tutorial and aced it? Learning from the social butterflies in your social circle is pretty much the same thing. You know who they are and this is the only time we’ll give you that nod of approval to just stand around at socials and observe.
Take a cue from that coworker that has a war story for every occasion. If you stick around long enough, chances are you’ll hear those stories more than once. Ramit often talks about the toolbox for interviews which allows you to skirt difficult questions with stories that you’ve memorized and tweaked accordingly.
There are also story and question toolboxes to improve conversation skills. Wing it while you’re learning how to relate stories naturally. More importantly, see how successful communicators use their toolbox.
- The length of time they hold eye contact for.
- Watch how they laugh and smile.
- Observe their posture and stance, are they relaxed?
- The timing between their questions, responses, and how they give others the floor to speak.
8. Ask for feedback
This is a toughy, but a goodie, and that’s because you may need to shoulder some criticism, but all in the spirit of growth. There are different ways to approach this, according to your level of comfort.
Friends and loved ones
Possibly the hardest group to ask because the feedback will feel brutal. But take it in your stride and enjoy a few laughs and giggles as you work your way through their points.
- Have a one-to-one with that bubbly cousin who gets invited to everyone’s Thanksgiving dinner and has more job offers than dollars in their bank account.
- Find out from your best friend whether you talk too fast or have a one-tone voice.
- Ask loved ones whether they can recommend ways for you to engage others a little better.
If you happen to have a following on social media, you already have a test group ready and waiting to give you feedback. Harness the resources you have to build the best social version of yourself.
The bottom line
Improving your conversational skills may take a little time, especially if your idea of a good night out is watching the late-night movie by yourself so you can wear your pajamas without judgment.
It will take more than a good jacket or a new pair of shoes. Your social skills depend on how well you can connect with the other person and form relationships. It’s as simple and hard as that!
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