5 WAYS TO BE A BETTER CONVERSATIONALIST
Tips to help you talk easily to anyone (and get out of the occasional sticky situation!)
I recall my first day at university. Looking around at all the strange faces surrounding me, I felt excited at the prospect of meeting new friends, but at the same time, I was incredibly nervous. I wasn’t anti-social, but I was very, very shy. As a little girl, I would follow my dad around for gatherings, but whenever he tried to introduce me to his friends, I would hide behind him with my head lowered and refuse to be coaxed out of it. Nothing anyone said or did could change my behaviour and over time, I earned the nickname “Shadow”.
Fast forward to my freshman year and deep inside, I was still the little girl who wished she could hide behind daddy’s back. As the day wore on, I looked on enviously as my classmates started to make friends with one another and form up into pairs or little groups. I wanted so badly to have a friend, but felt too scared to even try talking to anyone.
The truth was, I did not know how to approach people and make conversation. What should I say? How do I introduce myself? What if the other person thinks I’m weird or crazy? What if she finds me boring? All these questions would run through my head over and over again, flooring me with anxiety.
I remember noticing this girl in ripped jeans and a cute bob. Like me, she too seemed to be going around for lectures alone. I liked her, but I thought she looked too cool to want to be friends with me. Besides, what would we talk about? What if we had nothing in common? Worse still, what if she turned out to be a mean person?
My thoughts were interrupted by someone tapping on my shoulder. I turned around. “Hi!” quipped the girl standing before me. “I’m Jaime – spelled J-A-I-M-E, not the J-A-M-I-E,” she said, a big smile crinkling the sides of her eyes. She felt so warm and genuine, I took to her instantly.
“Oh hi! I’m Chloe – Chloe with a C, not a K, like the Kardashian,” I offered in return in an attempt to be witty.
“I think you’re in my social psychology class. Do you want to go for the next lecture together?” Jaime asked.
“Okay!” I replied, without any hesitation. I was so relieved to have a new friend.
As we made a move to go, Jaime said, “Come let me introduce you to Sylvia, she’s also in our class so we can go together.” Lo and behold, “Sylvia” turned out to be the girl with the bob, and despite her cool exterior, she was actually a really friendly person.
11 years down the road, Jaime, Sylvia, and I are still best buddies. We survived university together, and have since stuck together throughout the highs and lows of life. I cannot imagine my life without either of these girls today – and to think it all started with a “Hi!”
THE IMPORTANCE OF FACE-TO-FACE INTERACTIONS
Over the years, I’ve learned how to come out of my shell and to not take things too personally even when I face rejection. Fortunately, I’ve brushed up on my networking skills over time, and am less likely to find myself clutching a cocktail alone in a corner, desperately trying to come up with conversation topics.
Like it or not, we don’t live in a bubble, and networking is a necessary social skill. To be honest, I still get butterflies in my stomach whenever I have to attend networking events. The reality is that it isn’t always going to be smooth-sailing, and I’ve had a few awkward experiences of my own. But learning how to start and close conversations, are key steps to mastering this important skill.
Here’re some pointers for good icebreakers, smooth closings, and everything in-between:
WHEN YOU WANT TO SAY HI
Rather than go into a networking event thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to have to talk about myself a lot,”, change your mindset to plant the right intention. Mara Goldberg, a conflict management specialist, advises, “Go into the event with the mindset of, ‘I’m curious and I want to learn more about other people.”
When starting a conversation, a simple introduction can also turn into a solid conversation if you’re willing to share a little about yourself from the get go. Try something like, “Hi I’m Sharon and I work in advertising. My role has been really challenging lately because of the new media regulations. Have you been dealing with that as well?”
WHEN YOU WANT TO TAKE THE CONVERSATION DEEPER
The best conversationalists aren’t always the ones with witty things to say, but they are the ones who genuinely listen. Lean into the conversation with your whole body, establish good eye contact, and provide your undivided attention. And instead of crafting your responses in your head even as the other person is talking, stay in the moment and you’ll find yourself having a more meaningful conversation. Also, asking open-ended questions that require more than just a “yes” or “no” answer, are helpful if you’re looking to establish common ground.
WHEN YOU WANT SOME COMPANY
Big events can feel quite intimidating so the moral support of a plus one is always appreciated. Besides, it’s always more fun to have a pal by your side. Asking someone to explore new areas with you, also provides a more informal way to get to know each other in a more relaxed manner.
Try something like, “Hey have you checked out the booths on that side? I’m keen to see what they’re offering and am headed there now. I would love some company – would you like to go together?”
WHEN YOU’VE GOT TO FIX AN ACCIDENTAL NAME MIX-UP
Oops, you’ve called them by the wrong name but there’s no need to sweat it. Acknowledge your mistake immediately and apologise. Emphasise that you’ve had a long day and you were just talking to [insert name that you just called them], hence the confusion.
WHEN YOU NEED TO LEAVE A CONVERSATION
Sometimes, even if you’re talking to someone really interesting, the time comes when you’re ready to peruse the rest of the event. A good rule of thumb is to talk for five to 10 minutes, and then move on. Repeat something the other person says with a positive spin, like, “Sounds like that shipping convention was fun.” That way, they’ll know that you’ve been listening and when you follow up with a quick exit, you won’t come across as rude.
Pass them one of your business cards and say: “Janice, it was lovely talking to you. I’m going to take a look at some of the other exhibits here, but if I don’t run into you later, I hope to see you at another event soon.” Or if the person you’ve made seems like someone that you’ll like to follow up with, exchange contact information before you part ways.