Talking to people, especially people I don't know, doesn't come easily to me. I can do it, but I find it really hard.
But, as I learned by speaking with Susan RoAne, an international presenter, keynote speaker, and author ("How To Work a Room®" and "Face To Face: How To Reclaim the Personal Touch in a Digital World"), the art of conversation is something you can learn, practice, and improve. Good news for introverts everywhere.
From networking to work functions to dating, here are RoAne's best tips for talking to literally anyone.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Whether you're going to a company event, a networking function, a fundraiser, a party, or a date, don't go in cold.
“Do your due diligence," said RoAne. "Google people, check out websites, look and see through an e-vite who might be coming. Get a general feel of who the audience is.” It'll be much easier to talk to people if you know a little bit about them first.
BE CONVERSATIONAL, NOT STALKERY
The goal in a conversation is comfort and familiarity.
“When you meet a person, you don’t want to say things that show you were really prying into their life," RoAne said. "But if you meet someone and you found out that they just completed a marathon and they put it up online and were collecting money for charity, I think it's enough to say, ‘I understand you completed that marathon for charity, what was that like?’ That’s conversational,” she said, not stalkery.
MAKE A COMMENT, THEN INTRODUCE YOURSELF
Some people like to start a conversation by saying, “Hi, I’m so-and-so,” but RoAne told us there’s a better way. “Make a comment — about the venue, the event, the host, the food — and have a little exchange, then introduce yourself.” It's a little more comfortable, and a little more connecting.
Or ask someone how they know the host of the event. Ask what they do for the company, how long they've been on the board of the charity, how long they've lived in the city. "Find out what you have in common."
IT STARTS WITH SMALL TALK
Any conversation, RoAne said, “starts with small talk. All the people that denigrate small talk make a huge mistake. As you meet people and connect and have some small-talk exchange, then you build that rapport that you can build a deeper conversation on.”
Keep up with the news and current events. Talk about the weather. Compliment something the person is wearing. “You have to earn the right to ask questions and make comments that dig a little deeper,” RoAne said.
BRING A MIX OF STORIES AND QUESTIONS
Some people suggest that you ask a lot of questions if you don't know what to talk about, but RoAne said this isn't a great idea. “If you’re asking too many questions, you really sound like a busybody," she said. "You have to bring something to that conversational banquet.”
Come prepared with five topics to talk about, she suggested. These could be “things you read, things you observed, things you experienced — it’s a combination of both.”
STOP NETWORKING, START SOCIALIZING
One of the reasons people hate networking events is that they hate what they think it means to network. "Switch the mindset," RoAne offered, and "think of it as socializing. Stop networking, start socializing.”
Instead of thinking of what you can do to make yourself comfortable, she said, think about "what you can do to make other people comfortable. What can you do to extend yourself? Welcome people, have a big smile on your face."
CHANGE SUBJECTS POLITELY AND GRACIOUSLY
RoAne referred to a trick her friend uses when she wants to change subjects in a conversation. “She’ll say, ‘Before I forget, I need to change the subject for a moment.’" She puts the onus on herself so the other person doesn't get offended.
"To me that’s such a polite, gracious way," said RoAne. “Most of the time, people are willing to go to another subject.”
HOW TO BAIL POLITELY
The number-one question RoAne gets asked is how to exit a conversation. There are a couple of polite ways to do this.
“If the conversation has been wonderful but you know, especially if you’re talking to the big kahuna, that you can’t hog their time, what you simply do is interrupt yourself — you can put out your hand, because a handshake also signifies the end of a conversation — and say, ‘Hey, it was great to talk to you about ___,’ and then summarize what you talked about," she said.
This shows you were listening to the person during the conversation, and not zoning out.
RoAne pointed out that you should "use a pleasant voice. It’s no use saying ‘it was nice talking to you’ if your voice and face don’t say the same thing." Then you can offer your business card or ask for theirs, or exchange phone numbers so you can see that person again.