As summer starts, you may be returning to more and larger parties, weddings, and other social events. And if you’re feeling insecure about your conversation skills, you’re not alone.
We might not often think about it, but practice makes perfect in most cases, and that includes socializing and conversation as well. Even if you are more of an extroverted personality, you can still benefit from practicing and experimenting with telling stories to improve your confidence and charisma when introducing yourself to others and engaging in conversation.
Best-selling author Rami Sethi, who focuses on helping people with jobs and finances, suggests that people practice and test their storytelling to build confidence and comfort in social situations. He suggests the following tips:
Think about your best stories for common questions you are asked in small talk.
The kind of questions that strangers or acquaintances ask you during small talk often change based on your season of life. In college, people ask about majors, classes, summer jobs, and plans for the future. After college, people are more likely to ask general or specific questions about work, depending on whether they are familiar with your field, as well as questions about your family, partner, and kids. Meanwhile, acquaintances that you know through a specific activity may focus more on that commonality, e.g. people in your kayaking club will ask more about when you last went kayaking, where, and with whom.
Start off by deciding on three of your best stories to tell in answer to common questions. This way, when you are asked, you don’t have to scramble for a story or a way to answer. You will already have decided what you want to say. Remember that a story can be very short—just one or two sentences! Rather than stating your job title, Sethi recommends explaining what you do, who you work for, and why. (This is good advice because some people outside your field may not know what your job entails, and people in your field may know that there is a wide variety of responsibilities for some jobs.)
Lisa B. Marshall at The Muse also suggests developing your introduction beyond your job title. This is Marshall’s sample introduction:
“I’m Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. I can help you or your organization improve productivity through my workshops, consulting, or keynote speeches. I’m passionate about communication and your success is my business.”
This introduction, which is more suited for a business situation, states Marshall’s job title, explains what that means, and also includes a feeling. For a more casual social situation, you can use similar principles. When someone at a party asks, “What do you do?” you can respond with a brief story that explains what you do and why, or what you do and how you feel about it:
“I’m an editor. I have always loved literature and now I get to help others tell their stories.”
(Like Marshall’s example, this expands on the job and also conveys passion for literature and stories.)
“I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was a kid. Now, I get to work in a lab analyzing DNA samples!” (This explains what you do at your job and includes a tiny backstory.)
A great introduction that intrigues your conversation partner may also prompt them to ask you a follow-up question about your job, which you will already have an answer for.
Work on telling the stories to yourself in your head, in the mirror, on the page, or to someone else. Think about what would make an interesting story and what vibe the story will create (for instance, a more positive or negative vibe). For questions you might often answer in lists, consider telling one story instead—stories hold peoples’ attention. People remember stories.
Perhaps you have gone kayaking in four rivers since last month. Instead of listing off the locations, try telling a story about an adventure you had on one of them. (Of course, if your acquaintance presses you for a list of the other rivers you kayaked in, you don’t have to avoid the question!)
Remember that socializing and storytelling are skill sets that you can practice; they are not necessarily innate talents that people either do or don’t have. Storytelling and conversation are totally learnable for people who feel uncomfortable in some situations, and they are improvable for people who already love meeting strangers but would like to keep the conversation going more smoothly.
The last step is to experiment in person! Tell the stories to see how it goes, then revise and experiment with the next version and the next, until you find an iteration of the story that works really well. You can test out different words, phrases, emphasis, and tone of voice when telling your stories. Try to be more or less animated. Experiment with adding more or less context or backstory. Add some humor and see if it goes over well or falls flat. What gets the best reaction? What intrigues your conversation partner? How can you add more suspense? If you want to really improve, you can also film yourself telling a story to see how you’re doing. (So hard to watch, I know!)
Here are some storytelling tips to keep in mind while you’re practicing:
-Speak slowly and clearly.
-Vary your tone to keep people interested. Raise and lower your voice according to what happens in the story.
-Gesture with your hands. Speakers who use their hands keep people more interested.
-Make sure your story has a clear point or takeaway.
Remember to ask good questions.
Lastly, ask good questions of your conversation partner, as well! People love to be asked about and talk about themselves. At Medium, Josh Spector suggests that we ask questions about reactions, lessons, and specifics rather than generalizations. Think about some good, open-ended questions to ask people that will invite them to share experiences that were fun, amusing, or that had an impact on them. Open-ended questions start with what, when, where, why, or how, such as the following:
-What is the best part about job/major/hobby/experience?
-When did you feel the most excited/scared/confident?
-How did you know that this was the right direction/location/person for you?
-What did you learn from that experience?
-(Follow-up questions): Why do you think that? What makes you say that? How did you decide?
While it might feel awkward at first to spend so much time practicing and preparing for conversations, as with anything being prepared builds confidence. We all aim to connect with others when we converse and the less we’re worried about ourselves and how we’re managing the conversation the more we can focus on connecting with the people we’re talking with.