When you’re in school, no one grades you on your people skills. You can’t get an A* in small talk or a distinction in listening. It’s all analysis, argument and recall, hard skills that you assume will take you from the top of your class to the top of the career ladder.
Except that doesn’t turn out to be true, does it? The people at the top are defined not by their technical aptitude but by their ability to marshal the aptitudes of others towards a coherent goal. Even raw intelligence isn’t a great predictor of success, beyond being vaguely smart.
The best predictor of success turns out to be soft or people skills. And like harder skills, they depend on both natural talent and many, many hours of practice.
This probably won’t help you much if you’re stranded by the toilets at some ghastly drinks reception though, so to help you out we’ve brought you some of the cheat codes, courtesy of Vanessa Van Edwards, behavioural investigator, reformed socially-awkward person 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 for goodness’ sake stop trying to be - people will see through it. More importantly, says Van Edwards, you’d be missing the opportunity of playing to your strengths.
‘If you’re a quiet introvert, who’s maybe better at listening and one-on-one conversations, you’d be well served getting to an event early, so you can have time to approach the host and stake out a cocktail table in the corner, so when people come by you can say "hey come join me". If you’re better at chit-chat, you’d want to arrive at the height of the party and move from pod to pod,’ says Van Edwards.
2. Avoid traps
The location of said cocktail table wasn’t accidental. If you’re at an event where you have to mingle, it pays to understand how people generally mingle. For instance, people aren’t ready to meet new people when they’ve just walked in, says Van Edwards, because they might want to use the toilet or get a drink or find the host.
It’s just one of several social traps, where unfortunate souls linger, including the cloakroom and the far side of the food tables/bar. Instead, try to find the hot spots near the food and drink, in the middle of the room and near the host.
3. Show us your hands
Bad at first impressions? It could be a terrible opening line, it could even be bad breath, but it’s just as likely 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.
‘The best approach is to make eye contact, then reach up with your hand as if to say I’m coming in for a handshake.’
4. Look people in the eye... but not that much
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. ‘Over 70% eye contact is considered invasive. But don’t worry about having to make eye contact too much, it just creates too much additional pressure. Think more about making sure you make eye contact when they’re conveying something important.’
5. Ask clever questions
Small talk can cause big problems. There’s only so many times you can say what you do or comment on the canapés before it becomes boring – and who remembers the people behind boring conversations?
‘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. Instead of "how’s work", you could ask "working on anything exciting recently". It just asks for a little more, and makes for a far more interesting conversation because their brain’s turned on,’ says Van Edwards.
6. Practise your stories
Rehearsing social interactions in the toilet beforehand is generally a mistake, but there is one exception. ‘I do believe in practising your stories. 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.
The best time to spin a good yarn? ‘There’s no wrong time for it, but I love it in that moment of the conversation when nobody knows what to say next.’
7. Stop looking at your phone...
...and start talking to people.