Be social IRLWritten by Justin on May 21, 2014
Eventually, you’re going to need to get up from your computer, and talk to some real humans, in real life. This applies whether you’re building a product, doing customer interviews, or applying for a job.
Here are some quick tips I’ve learned over the years that might be helpful for you.
Get out of the building
By default, it’s easier to stay inside. It’s easier to just keep working on your computer. You have to fight that urge to stay put; go make some plans! Go to a local meetup, attend a workshop, RSVP for that party. The only way you’re going to get better socially is if you get out and practice.
Slow down introductions
We all have a bad habit of speeding through introductions: when we’re introduced to someone new we’re more concerned about our sweaty hands than remembering their name.
Slow it down.
Purposefully introduce yourself. When they say their name, shake their hand and repeat it back to them: “Hi Sam, it’s good to meet you.” Say those words slowly, with intention. Maintain eye contact. Smile. Make a connection. Be warm. You don’t have to rush.
Use their name again immediately
Remembering a person’s name is the highest compliment you can pay them. There are many tricks to remembering names: one is to immediately associate them with someone you already know that has the same name.
My favorite, however, is to use their name immediately, right after being introduced:
“So Sam, tell me, where are you from?”
“Sam, let me introduce you to my friend Jen.”
“Sam, can I buy you a beer?”
Using someone’s name a few times after hearing it will help you learn it faster.
Ask good questions
The best way to start a conversation is to ask a good question.
One night, at a speakers’ dinner, I found myself sitting next to Robert Scoble. I realized he must get questions about blogging and technology all the time. Instead of discussing those, I asked him: “What was your first job out of college?” When he answered that he’d gotten his start working in his uncle’s photography store, asking follow-up questions was easy: “What did you learn about sales?” “Where does a photography store make most of it’s money” It ended up being a really interesting conversation because I saw a side of Scoble that I’d never seen before.
I practice this skill by writing out questions in a notebook. I go through scenarios, including what follow-up questions I might ask. Almost always the questions start general, and then go deeper from there: “Where’d you go to college? What was your major? What was your favorite class? Why was it your favorite? What was something you learned that you still find valuable today? What are some ways you’ve used that lesson in your everyday life?”, and so on.
Don’t talk about yourself: take a keen interest in the other person
It’s no great secret that people love talking about themselves. We’re all tempted to do it. What’s missing in the world are great listeners. People that can listen attentively are truly hard to find.
There’s two types of people that become popular at a party: the clown (who cracks jokes, and entertains) and the listener (who attracts people through her attentiveness).
Body language is important here: don’t dart your eyes around the room looking for “other options”. Lean forward. Really focus on what they’re saying. Be warm. Relax. Enjoy being in their company.
Treat people as equals
We get into trouble when we treat people better, or worse, than ourselves.
When we feel like we’re underneath people, we’re nervous, fawning, and shy.
When we feel like we’re superior to others, we’re obnoxious, rude, and cavalier.
Neither of those are ideal.
Years ago, at a conference, I met a famous blogger (and when I say famous, I mean “internet famous”). I had no idea who he was. I hadn’t heard of him, and hadn’t read his blog. In my mind, he was my peer, and we had a great conversation. Immediately after, my friend ran up to me: “Do you realize who that was?” I was actually better that I didn’t know. Everyone is a person. Trying to categorize someone’s status doesn’t help anything.
Feeling awkward is normal
One thing that extroverts (like me) learn over time is that you have to brush aside a lot of feelings when you’re interacting socially. We’ve learned how to move past a fumbled sentence, an uncomfortable pause, or being snubbed.
If something awkward happens, it’s OK; it’s not the end of the world. If someone seems bored with you, let them go. If you feel like an idiot, put that thought out of your mind, and focus on the other person. If you find yourself standing alone, search for someone else that’s by themselves. Take some risks. Walk up to an existing group and ask if you can join them.
What did I miss?
Do you have some tips that have worked for you? Tweet me your favorites here.
PS: if you like this, you’d probably like my newsletter. Every Saturday you’ll receive a new essay; then you can reply to the email and chat with me about it! Get on the list here.
A newsletter for makers
Stories and inspiration for independent makers.
A newsletter for product people, developers, and designers.