At school, no one grades you on small talk. You can’t come top of your class in listening. Yet career success depends on such people skills. For the socially-awkward yet technically-gifted, this can come as a rude awakening. Fortunately, there is a neat, practical solution: you can cheat.
To find out how, Management Today spoke to Vanessa Van Edwards, behavioural investigator and author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People.
1. PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
You mean you’re not the life and soul of the party? Then stop trying to be - people will see through it. Instead, play to your strengths.
‘If you’re a quiet introvert, who’s maybe better at one-on-one conversations, you’d be well served getting to an event early, so you have time to approach the host.’
2. AVOID SOCIAL TRAPS
If you have to mingle, it helps to understand how mingling works, paying particular attention to ‘social traps’, where conversation goes to die.
Avoid the entrance, outside the cloakroom and the far side of the buffet. Instead, pick a hot spot by the bar, in the middle of the room or near the host, where guests are looking to meet new people.
3. SHOW US YOUR HANDS
Bad at first impressions? It could be a terrible opening line or bad breath, but more often than not it’s got something to do with your hands. ‘We really make a first impression when we see someone not when they first start speaking. Keep your hands visible. It makes us feel we can trust you,’ says Van Edwards.
4. LOOK PEOPLE SQUARE IN THE EYE
‘So I’ve made eye contact, I’ve shaken hands, I’ve got talking... can I look away now?’
Yes and no. Mostly no. You want to aim to hold eye contact around 60-70% of the time. Any more is considered invasive. ‘Don’t worry about having to make eye contact too much, it just creates too much additional pressure,’ says Van Edwards. Just remember to do it when you say something important.
5. ASK CLEVER QUESTIONS
There are only so many times you can talk about the weather or the canapés without it getting boring – and therefore forgettable. ‘You need to get people off autopilot. Most chit-chat is brain dead, it’s a social script. The best way is to ask just a slightly different version of the usual questions, using slightly more exciting words,’ says Van Edwards.
6. PRACTISE YOUR STORIES
Rehearsing social interactions in the corridor is generally a mistake, but there is one exception: when you’re telling a story. ‘Start very casually with friends and family. Every time you tell it you’ll get the timing a little better. It’s got to be authentic, but the more rehearsed it is, the more it will land perfectly,’ says Van Edwards.
7. STOP LOOKING AT YOUR PHONE
...and start talking to people. Trawling Wikipedia articles about ferrets might pass the time and make you appear busy and important, but it’s social poison. If you can’t help yourself, turn it off, or even don’t bring it. Now there’s a thought.
7 social hacks for awkward people
Your days as a wallflower are numbered.