One of the hardest social situations to face is starting a conversation with someone you know very little about. You might already understand that the key to being a good conversationalist is to be a good listener; You need to ask questions that will get to the interesting part of someone, and then be truly interested in listening.
You don’t need to be extroverted to be a great conversationalist; you need to care about other people. You need to trust that you will find other people interesting because you are a curious, engaged person. The good news for introverts is that this means working a room doesn’t require comfort with crowds as much as it requires comfort with yourself.
The problem is that it’s hard to figure out how to get to that interesting part of someone. But here’s some encouragement: Forty percent of young people think they are shy, and the percentage gets higher over time. However most people do not have a shyness disorder to overcome, they just need a little more practice. For example, “Most socially confident people deliberately learn specific skills, like understanding the predictable format of a conversation with new people, and focusing on the topic rather than on how one is being perceived,” according to Erika Casriel, writing in Psychology Today.
So I found someone who is in this situation a lot, and actually gets paid for it: Moira Gunn, author of the book Welcome to Biotech Nation. Her radio show, Tech Nation, is known for introducing hard-core scientists to people who aren’t especially interested in science. She finds a lot of people to interview by going to the International Biotech Conference, and she does the interviews herself even though she knows very little about biotech.
The way that Gunn gets such fun and interesting interviews out of her subjects is by not having a preconception of what they’ll be talking about. She wants to find that spot where they are engaged and knowledgeable, because anyone on any topic will be interesting if they have that. She says the key is to be open to where the other person wants to go, and to listen.
It’s Gunn’s job to figure out a way to connect with these scientists and part of the fun of the interviews is hearing her do that, because it’s what we have to do all the time when we make small talk. Yes, the scientists are extremely smart, but Gunn says the hard part is to get them to the point where they are talking about something comprehensible.
“This is not about all the science someone needs to know. This is about what really connects with people,” says Gunn. “I have a rule. You get one strange word a segment.”
What’s an example? “Nucleotide.”
One of Gunn’s favorite interviews was with a food safety researcher who ended up talking about mussels. He told her that you are only supposed to eat them in months that have Rs in them, because in June, July and August the water is warm and bacteria levels go up, and muscles are basically filters.
Gunn’s favorite part of this interview wasn’t even the science. Mr Food Safety is a vegetarian. Gunn laughs out loud when she tells me. She is great at small talk because she can go to the International Biotech conference and find comedy.
Gunn has done interviews with difficult people for years, and by now she is able to get even the worst conversationalist into territory where he is interesting. But she’s had a lot of practice.
You have to practice making conversation if you want to be good. “Building confidence is like learning to swing a golf club. It boils down to knowing what the critical skills are and practicing them. Even Tiger Woods still practices for hours every day,” says Bernardo Carducci, director of Indiana University Southeast’s Shyness Research Institute (also in Psychology Today).
Of course, in order to practice this you have to open yourself up for some awkward situations. But there is no way to grow without being awkward at first, so try it. It feels good to be able to find the interesting thing about anyone you talk with. I find the more confident I am in my ability to do this, the more open I am to the whole world. After lots of practice I have a deep belief that everyone has something to offer if I can just get the guts to start the conversation.