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We’ve all been on the receiving end of small talk in which we want to sprint 100 miles in the opposite direction. Then there are those people that captivate us right away and magically lead us into interesting conversations.

What separates the dreaded “so what about that weather” small talk from these engaging conversations when meeting new people?

Enter Vanessa Van Edwards, lead investigator at the Science of People and upcoming author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People on how you can take your small talk skills to the next level and enjoy it even if you’re allergic to it.

I used to be boring. I talked a lot about the weather. I pretended to text people at networking events. I escaped to the bathroom during parties just to get a little break from the small talk. The more networking events I attended, the more bored I got and the less connections I made.

I was told, “To be interesting, be interested,” by Dale Carnegie.

I was told, “80% of success is just showing up,” by Woody Allen.

So I kept showing up and listening. But it never worked. As you may have guessed, I’m not naturally good with people. In school my book smarts always sufficed to cover up for my lack of people smarts. But IQ does not mean strong social skills. As soon as I entered into the adult world of dating, networking, pitching and interviewing, my social skills wasn’t cutting it.

I wondered, what would happen if I began to study people like I had studied for chemistry or computer programming in school. Could there be formulas? Human behavior hacks? I found that there is a way to tactically approach your social skills. I believe soft skills can be hard skills.

The most fundamental area of interpersonal intelligence is the art and science of dazzling conversation. Let’s dive in.

5 Tactical Ways to Increase Your Small Talk

Step #1: The Death of Small Talk - Stop Asking These Questions

The very first thing I realized is that there are conversational traps. If you set one for yourself, it will be incredibly difficult to turn the conversation around. The biggest small talk trap is asking one of these three questions:

  • How are you?
  • What do you do?
  • Where are you from?

You have probably answered (and asked) these questions a million times before. So when you answer them you go into autopilot. You don’t think, you don’t get enjoyment and you certainly don’t remember the conversation. If you want small talk to die a quick fiery death you have to quit these questions cold turkey. From now on, you are allergic to these questions.

Step #2: Trigger Dopamine - Asking Better Questions

Dopamine is the chemical produced when someone feels pleasure or gets a reward. You can produce this chemical in really stimulating conversations. Sparkling chit chat? Dazzling conversation? That’s dopamine at work delighting your senses. It also serves as a type of mental marker--it aids memory in the brain. In other words, if you ask pleasure producing questions you both make the other person feel good AND the conversation becomes more memorable. Your goal during any conversation is to try to push your partner’s pleasure buttons. Errr, that sounds dirty. Verbal pleasure buttons. Here are some of my favorite questions that produce pleasure:

  • Working on anything exciting recently?
  • Been on any vacations?
  • What personal passion project are you working on?

These questions are surprisingly easy to lead with. Sidle up next to someone, introduce yourself and casually pop one. It might go like this, “Hi, I’m Vanessa! So working on anything exciting recently.” Or you can use them as a transition in an existing conversation. You know that lull that can happen in a group? You can pipe in with, “So, anyone going on any big vacations this summer?”

Step #3: Say My Name, Babe

Want to start off a conversation on the right foot? Use someone’s name. Researchers Dennis Carmody and Michael Lewis found that we have higher brain activation when we hear our own name. Using someone’s name also helps you remember it. Here are my tricks for remembering someone’s name:

  • Say it out aloud--they hear it and you hear yourself say it which helps you remember. Say, “Nice to meet you UJ!” or “UJ, tell me more about the 5 Minute Journal.”
  • Think of other people with that name. Whenever I meet a Matt I put him at a poker table with all of my other Matt friends. It is way easier to anchor a new person to someone you already know or a celebrity whose name you would recognize right away. (Matt Damon plays poker with my Matt friends too).
  • If they have a unique name think of a rhyme to trigger it. Rhymes are easier to remember and turn a name into a song--and it’s usually easier to remember song lyrics. So when I met UJ I anchored it with Blue Jay, which is my favorite bird. Easy peasy!

Step #4: Look for Indicators

When you are in an interview, on a date or giving your elevator pitch you should constantly be looking for interest indicators. These are nonverbal signs that someone is engaged. When we like someone or something or a topic we tend to:

  • Lean in. We like to be closer to things we like. We lean in when we laugh, we tilt our head towards someone or scoot our chair in.
  • Touch. When we want to connect with someone or something we like to be tactile. Women run their hands over dresses they like in stores. Men drape their arm around their crushes shoulder. When we like someone we are more likely to touch their arm, high five, fist bump or hug.
  • Eyebrow raise. When we are curious or interested we often raise our eyebrows up--we do this when we hear something engaging AND when we are saying something we want to be engaging. Try it now. When you do it, you should want to also say, “Huh! Interesting”

These are all body language signs of attraction -- not just romantic attraction, but social attraction and business attraction. You can both watch for these indicators and use these indicators. To show interest lean in, casually touch their arm and raise your eyebrows when you hear a great story. And if you see any of these indicators you have just hit a dopamine trigger!

...but what if you don’t see any indicators of interest? This is an important sign in itself. If I’m whipping out great conversation starters, using their name and avoiding boring answers and they are still not showing any interest. Guess what? They are not my person. And you might not be theirs. End it politely for the both of you. Say something like, “Well it was a pleasure meeting you. I am going to refill my drink. Have a good night!” So you have more energy to find your people.

Step #5: Be a Raver

This last one is one of my favorite tactical people hack because it includes everything we have already learned. One of the best ways to stimulate interesting conversation is to bring new people in. This also helps your interpersonal intelligence because it widens your circle and turns you into a connector. Practice becoming a raver--no not the glow stick kind, the introducer kind. When you see someone you know, bring them over to the person you are speaking with and give them both a raving introduction. Use both of their names, share an interesting fact, include them both in a big bear hug, and give them a juicy conversation starter to start with. For example:

“UJ, you have to meet Shellie! Shellie just started and amazing non-profit and UJ is the incredible co-creator of the Five Minute Journal. You guys are both gratitude champions, you have to share how you got started on your crazy paths.”

This is like a gift to both parties AND helps you be more memorable. When we put everything into action it looks like this:

  • You meet someone new. You introduce yourself and use the name memorization tactics.
  • You snub the standard, "what do you do" questions" for a more exciting, dopamine producing question of, "So, what personal passion project have you been working on" which spurs fascinating conversation for the both of you.
  • After talking for a few moments, you introduce them to another person at the party, and gracefully exit the conversation--asking for their business card or phone number on the way out.

What I never realized growing up is that people skills can be learned, BUT you don’t just pick them up along the way. Interpersonal Intelligence takes cultivation, practice and work. But I promise, it is worth the effort.

To read more human behavior hacks and skills check out Vanessa’s latest book Captivate. Vanessa Van Edwards is lead investigator at the Science of People—a human behavior research lab. She runs original research experiments on body language and people skills at ScienceofPeople.com.
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