By Katrina Razavi September 30, 2016

How Introverted Nerds Like You Can Have Amazing Conversations in 4 Steps

You just realized you’ve been sitting in the same spot for hours coding — you missed lunch and hardly spoke to anyone the entire day.

Does that sound familiar? If you’re reading this blog, it likely does.

With this type of schedule, it’s no wonder programmers fall into cycles of not socializing with other people so easily.

Look, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m going to share my own story of how I (a self-proclaimed nerd) went from sucking at socializing to becoming a networking ninja.

Today, I want to give you actionable strategies to boost your social confidence and give you the tools you need to begin having natural conversations. Regardless of what you think or what people tell you, social skills are just that: skills. Like any skill or language, they can be practiced and perfected.

So stick with me if you want to know:

  • A step-by-step process on crushing that inner voice and having natural conversations.
  • How I went from being scared to approach VIPs, to raising $100k in capital by improving my social skills and pitch.
  • The real difference between an introvert and extrovert and why neither matter when you want to be good at conversations.
  • How to crush that little voice in your head telling you you’re not good enough and worrying about what others think.
  • How to set achievable goals when working to improve your social skills.
  • The only strategy you need to know to start conversations and approach people with confidence.
  • Four conversational formulas that you can use in ANY conversation with ANYONE.
  • The only strategy that you need to know to keep ANY conversation going naturally.
  • How to get a free video course on getting socially confident and beating awkward conversations.

But First, Here’s My Story

nerd

It was me, myself, and my burrito sitting in a Silicon Valley motel after attending a nearby networking event. “I sucked,” I thought.

I went to the event and hardly met anyone. I stood on the perimeter of the room awkwardly, feeling like I stood out because I was only one of a few women in attendance (and the others were so much better at networking than I was). The few people I actually wanted to approach, I didn’t.

I psyched myself out, telling myself I wasn’t smart or cool enough to introduce myself. I didn’t have my pitch down, and I didn’t feel like “selling” myself or my business. The fact that I was (and still am) an introvert didn’t help much.

This was a few years ago when I had a startup. The startup was an idea and a domain name, nothing more. I had to raise capital or it wouldn’t go anywhere. As most entrepreneurs would, I’d go to these networking events, but I wasn’t good at approaching and conversing with people, which was kinda the point.

At that point in the cheap motel room, I realized I had had enough. I told myself that I’d have to beat my social hangups once and for all if I wanted to meet investors and raise capital.

So I worked at it, like any good entrepreneur would.

I spent almost a year working on my social skills. I’d test different ways of approaching people; I started smiling and shaking hands. I even read How to Win Friends & Influence People.

After that year, I beat a lot of my negative self-talk. I got over the fact that I was the only female in the room and perfected how to pitch my startup. It paid off.

I connected with people, had coffee meetings, went to other networking events, and built a pretty solid professional network, one that helped me raise $100k for my startup and get a $20k salary raise when I was looking for a job a few years later. Personally, I started making more friends, met my future husband, and I just started enjoying people (and life) so much more.

Introvert vs. Extrovert (and What the Hell Is an Ambivert?!)

Before we go into the strategies I’m going to share today, let’s do some myth busting and break down the jargon as simply as we can.

This whole “introvert” and “extrovert” thing was created by a Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. He defined these traits as people being either more internally or externally focused.

Simply put, an introvert is someone who gains energy from being alone. Being around tons of people or crowds saps your energy.

An extrovert is someone who gains energy from being around others. Being alone saps extroverts’ energy.

The truth is that most of us are somewhere on that spectrum (aka ambiverts), rather than at the extremes. By the way, just because you’re shy does not necessarily mean that you’re an introvert, and just because you are a great conversationalist doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an extrovert.

I became great at starting conversations and keeping in touch with people, but I was and still am an introvert.

Remember, it just boils down to what energizes you. Being around others or being alone.

In fact, the best way to figure out which extreme you fall towards is to determine which scenario saps energy from you — being around others or being alone?

If you need “alone time” to recharge after being around a bunch of people, you’re more introverted.

If you gain energy from being around people, and doing things alone makes you anxious, you’re more extroverted.

Social Skills Are…Skills

people

Although I always knew I was an introvert, one of the most important things that I learned while I was improving my social skills was that social skills are simply skills.

It has been one of the most profitable skills I’ve developed.

You can develop it too, since it can be practiced and perfected. You can A/B test different approaches, topics to talk about, and in what environments you feel most comfortable socializing in. It can be fun!

Before we dive into the strategies, I want to explain my approach.

I teach that the foundation of social skills is getting ahold of your inner psychology, namely that annoying voice in your head that worries about a million things before, during, and after conversations. We’re going to tackle this step-by-step.

We’ll start with mental hacks to defeat that negative inner-voice, and then get a bit more tactical with things like goal-setting for social skills and how you can actually take action to talk. Taking action is the only way you can make a real improvement.

Today, I want to share a four-step process that you can use to begin having amazing conversations.

Step #1: Kill Negative Self-Talk

You know that voice in your head that doesn’t shut up? It’s that voice that tells you you’re going to screw up or that you’re not good enough to approach that cute girl or guy.

Well, that inner voice may be holding you back in many different ways.

It’s that same voice that’s worried about how the other person is judging you and how to avoid that weird silence. That inner voice is consuming valuable resources from your pre-frontal cortex, making it difficult for you to retain information and have fluid conversations.

Sian Beilock, a leading cognitive psychologist, and her team studied brain scans of students who “choked” under pressure.

By putting them in a variety of stressful situations (like timed math tests while being videotaped), they realized that when there’s “cross talk” between the amygdala (the part of your brain associated with worrying) and the prefrontal cortex, it affects your working memory.

Basically, your prefrontal cortex is consumed with worry rather than with the much-needed mental power you need to retain information and make decisions. It’s moments like these where you may “blank” or “choke.”

Now that you understand the science behind why that little voice is bogging you down, here are a few strategies to help you control it.

Action Item #1: Soften the Language

We can be really mean to ourselves. We may even use words like “stupid” or “ugly.” These words have a huge impact on the way we perceive ourselves and our world. Simply replacing these words with less impactful words can make a huge difference.

Here’s an example. Let’s suppose it’s your turn to speak in a big meeting. Rather than telling yourself you’re “scared” or “embarrassed,” try a word like “excited” or “pumped.”

The things that you tell yourself are who you become, so be cautious about how you treat yourself. Rather than being mean, be compassionate and loving. Not only will it help your self-confidence, but you’ll notice that you start treating other people more kindly, which will make you more likable and easier to talk to.

I want you to take 10 minutes and jot down some negative phrases that you’re constantly telling yourself, and write down replacement words or phrases that you can use instead.

Action Item #2: Identify Your Cues

One of my favorite books is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In his book, he talks about the habit loop. It’s made up of three things: cue, routine, and reward.

  • Cue – the “trigger.” It could be based on time, a preceding event, environment, or place (e.g., you always brush your teeth first thing in the morning).
  • Routine – the “what” you do (e.g., exercise, smoke, have a drink, etc. In this example, the act of brushing your teeth).
  • Reward – the pleasure you get out of fulfilling a craving (e.g., the minty, tingly sensation that keeps you brushing every morning. It keeps you repeating the habit).

social skills

Now that you know those three elements, let’s liken the loop to the habit of negative self-talk.

When are the times that you’re berating yourself? Is it when you see a cute girl or guy you want to approach? Is it when you see your boss walk by your desk?

These cues are also known as “crucial moments,” and when you identify them, you can plan accordingly. Use the softer language from your 10 minute exercise in Tip #1, or stop the cycle of negative self talk by replacing it with a mantra like “I’m a work in progress” or “I’m grateful for my life.”

Whatever those replacement routines are, you can script them out and plan for them, because you will now know your cues.

Think about some of these cues in your life, identify them, and come up with a new version of self-talk that you’re going to use instead. Here are some questions to help you identify those cues:

  • When do you begin to feel nervous or scared?
  • Are there people, places, preceding events, or times of day when your inner-voice is especially loud?

Action Item #3: Write It Down

If negative self-talk is really getting you down before a stressful event, you can write things down.

Sian Beilock, the cognitive psychologist I mentioned before, also ran stress experiments with students. He wanted to see if giving them a chance to write down their feelings prior to a stressful situation would help them calm down. This hypothesis was based on past research, which showed that depressed people who wrote things down had a better chance of breaking the cycle of negative self-talk.

They tested this by dividing subjects into two groups. One group was told to write down their deepest, darkest feelings 10 minutes prior to a test. The other group was instructed to just sit there and do nothing.

The group who took the time to write got an average score of B+. The students who didn’t do anything got an average score of B-. The simple act of writing down how they felt had reduced feelings of stress and improved their performance!

Sian Beilock put it best: “When people are worrying up [sic] under stress, it’s almost like a computer with too many programs open at once. Sometimes, everything crashes. And by writing down some of those worries, you’re able to offload some of those programs, so you free up resources to perform at your best.”

The next time your negative self-talk is stressing you out, put those feelings on paper.

Take some time to write out how you feel if you want to reduce anxiety and have improved performance.

Here are some questions to help you write your feelings out:

  • If you had to describe what you’re feeling in one word, what is it?
  • If that feeling turned into a color, what would that color be?
  • Is there anything else you’re feeling?
  • What is the best outcome of this stressful situation?
  • Write out a short story on how this could actually happen.

Step #2: Get over YourselfOver Yourself

Do you think you’re too cool or too smart to interact with people “below” you?

This can be common among technical folks who are smarter than the average bear. I get it, you think fast, you’re smart, and some people “just don’t get it.”

You may find it a burden to talk to someone who doesn't understand what you work on, or a coworker who works in a different department. However, if you want to improve your social skills, you need to get over yourself and genuinely consider how others feel.

I teach a lot of students who deal with social anxiety, and one of the best ways that they have found to connect with other people and get out of their own heads is by focusing on making the other person feel comfortable.

Action Item #4: How Can I Help You?

The first thing you can do is ask yourself, “How can I help the person I’m speaking to?”

Perhaps it is by giving them a smile when you walk up to them so that they feel more at ease, or asking them about themselves and their passions. Pretend like they’re the ones who are nervous to speak to you and you’re simply helping them out.

Look at each conversation as a new adventure where you’re trying to find a “golden nugget” (or a Pokémon). It’s the one thing, hidden somewhere inside, that they’re really passionate about. Perhaps it’s that they’re a pianist or they’ve always wanted to visit India.

Whatever it is, look at each conversation as a mutual investment to get to know someone else in a real way.

When you remove the focus from yourself and how everyone else compares to you, it will help you naturally get to know the other person. You’ll find that your conversations will flow more naturally because you’re sincerely engaged, and you’ll likely find that your body language is more open and prosocial since your mind is primed to focus on the other person.

Step #3 Resist Perfection

“If I’m not super good at it, I’m not even going to try.”

Does that sound familiar? Sure, you could approach that person you’ve been wanting to speak to for months or jump into that group conversation at work, but you’re not perfect when it comes to social skills.

What does that mean?

It means you’d rather spend Friday night alone, watching TV and eating Hot Pockets. Not to knock Hot Pockets, but wouldn’t you rather be drinking craft cocktails with a cute guy or girl on a Friday night?

The block that many introverts put up is that, because they’re not great at socializing, there’s no point in trying only to end up rejected.

Wrong, dead wrong.

If I didn’t take incremental steps when trying to improve my social skills, I would’ve never improved. I would’ve just continued eating burritos alone in motel rooms with no funding and no investors.

You don’t have to be that one guy who walks into the bar, tosses his hair, approaches the hottest girl at the bar, and gets her number. It’s okay to practice, to start small and work your way up.

You can (will!) get there, but you don’t need to start there.

Action Item #5: Set Micro-Goals

The problem with striving for absolute perfection is that you’ll spend most of your time reading blog posts and books to learn, but not taking ANY action.

Action is key. If you want to improve your social skills, you need to DO THINGS.

So how can you start taking action in a way that isn’t overwhelming?

You can set micro-goals. Micro-goals are:

  • Specific – they define exactly what you will do; that way, you can reduce the cognitive load when it comes time to actually doing them.
  • Achievable – they aren’t audacious goals; they’re somewhat challenging but achievable. When you achieve them, you propel yourself to more success.
  • Deadlined – you can’t have a goal without a deadline, duh!
  • Rewarded by Your Action – in social situations you don’t always have control over the way a person will react to you, but you do have control over the actions you take. So long as you reach your micro-goal, you have achieved success. If your micro-goal is to ask your barista how their day was and they scoff at you, it doesn’t matter. You did what YOU set out to do, which was to ask the question. By the way, this study from SAGE Journals shows that talking to your barista can make you happier.

Now that you know what micro-goals are, here are some examples of social micro-goals that you can do today:

  • Smile and make eye contact with five people on your commute home.
  • This week when you grab a coffee, ask the cashier, “Was it super busy today?”
  • This week at work, introduce yourself to someone you do not know and ask what they do at your company.

You can even get specific on the words or actions you will do. Are you going to shake hands? Smile? Say something specific? Set at least one micro-goal for this week, now.

Step #4: Embrace Small Talk

small-talk

If you really want to start getting more socially comfortable and confident, you’re going to have to embrace small talk.

This is what we’ve been leading up to. I know you may be dreading it, but you now have the foundation of effective social skills (which is controlling your inner psychology).

Small talk is important in building your social skills and engendering trust in others, but more importantly, it can make you happier!

A fascinating study conducted by Nicholas Epley and his student Juliana Schroeder, researched commuters on the Chicago Subway. They had three groups of commuters: those who were instructed to enjoy their ride in solitude, some who were told to do whatever they usually do, and the last group, who was told to have a conversation with whoever ended up sitting next to them.

All the commuters were then surveyed on how much they enjoyed the ride and how productive they felt during the ride.

Of all the groups, those who were instructed to have a conversation reported the most positive train ride and those who were in the solitude condition reported the most negative. For those who talked to their seat mate, the longer the conversation, the better the ride! There were no differences when it came to rating productivity between the three groups.

Interestingly, in a follow-up study, the same researchers asked subjects to imagine doing the experiment I just described. When they imagined going through that experiment, subjects predicted that talking to a stranger would make for the least positive and least productive experience.

The catch is that we underestimate how socializing with people (even strangers) can improve our experience with doing something as boring as commuting. This is likely why many of us don’t bother talking to our Uber driver or barista. We overestimate the happiness we’ll get from these exchanges.

Action Item #6: Approach People with Open-Ended Questions

Now let’s get to the meat.

So you’ve calmed down that inner voice, you’ve gotten over yourself, and you are open to learning and discovering people.

What’s your next move?

How do you start a conversation that doesn’t end with either a “yes” or a “no,” along with an awkward silence.

You ask open-ended questions!

Open-ended questions are simply questions that necessitate a deeper answer than a simple yes or no. Here are some examples:

  • Hi, I’m John. What brings you here tonight?
  • Hi, I’m John. How’s your night going so far?
  • Hi, I’m John. How do you know the host?
  • Hey there, I’m John. I see you’re drinking a Manhattan. How is it?

These are questions that need to be answered with a level of depth. Let’s go a step further and break this down into a few conversational formulas that you can use. The scripts can change depending on the context, but the formulas will remain the same.

Formula #1: Intro + observation + open-ended question

Examples:

  • Hi, I’m John. I see you’re drinking the margarita? How does it taste?
  • Hey there, I’m John. This is a great spot. How often do you come here?
  • Hey, I’m John. I notice you work on the finance team. What exactly do you do?
  • Hi, I’m John. I’ve seen you in the kitchen a lot but never introduced myself. What do you do here?

Formula #2: Intro + compliment + open-ended question

Examples:

  • Hi, I’m John. I love your necklace. What’s the story behind it?
  • Hi, I’m John, I really liked that presentation you made last week. How long did it take to put together?
  • Hey there, I’m John. Those are cool shoes. Where did you get them?

Formula #3: Intro + ask their opinion

Examples:

  • Hi, I’m John. What did you think of the last speaker?
  • Hi, I’m John. What do you think about this venue?
  • Hi, I’m John. My friends and I were debating about XYZ. What’s your take on it?

Formula #4: Intro + ask about a trending topic (Pro tip: before going to a social event, check your trending Twitter or Facebook topics for recent events or memes)

Examples:

  • Hey there, I’m John. Did you see the recent XYZ YouTube video? It was hilarious!
  • Hi, I’m John. Did you just hear about the [current event]? What’s your take on it?

Again, these are going to change based on the context and environment that you’re in, but by having a few formulas ready to go, you can simply swap in the right variables every time.

Action Item #7: Keep the Conversation GoingConversation

You’ve got the conversation started…awesome!

Now what? How do you keep it going?

I’m going to teach you the only strategy you really need to know to keep conversations flowing naturally. It’s something I like to call “conversational cues.”

They are words or topics used during the course of a conversation to keep it going. The best way to illustrate this is by way of example. Let’s suppose a conversation goes like this (note the bolded words).

Katrina: Hey John, how was your weekend?

John: It was great, I ended up going to a concert with a bunch of friends on Saturday night. I then hit the beach on Sunday.

Katrina: That sounds so fun! What concert was it?

John: It was the Guns-N-Roses concert.

Katrina: Wow, epic. That brings me back to my childhood. I love listening to music from back in the day; it makes me feel young again. Are you a big rock fan?

The bolded words or topics are the ones that can be used to keep the conversation going. In John’s first response, you’ll notice that he throws out a few conversational cues. I could’ve continued the conversation by talking about going to events with friends, going to the beach, or even what I did that weekend.

In this example, I took the conversational cue of “concert” to talk about music. The conversation could have kept going on with that topic, or I could have switched it to dig into how his day at the beach was.

Now that you know the strategy of conversational cues, you can use them to do things like:

  • Ask more questions related to the topic/theme OR
  • Volunteer information about yourself (like how I shared that listening to music from back in the day makes me feel young)

By doing either one of those things, you can make the person you’re speaking to feel like you’re truly engaged, because you are.

If you ask them more questions, they’ll get to talk about themselves, which people love. This Harvard study showed that people are even willing to forego money to talk about themselves, so this is always an easy way to make someone feel like you’re hosting an amazing conversation.

If you volunteer information about yourself, you’ll show some vulnerability which makes you more likeable — the foundation of building a relationship with another person.

Conclusion & Transform From Awkward To Charismatic

Social skills are just skills; they can be practiced and perfected.

You now have a step-by-step process to propel you to start being a bit more social. You know how to control your inner psychology, set goals, and have formulas and scripts so that you can start stepping outside of your social comfort zone.

If you seriously want to get socially confident, you can sign up for my free video course: How to Shut Up that Inner Voice & Beat Awkward Conversations which will show you how to make friends, get some dates, and improve your social life!

About the author

    Katrina Razavi

    Katrina is a communication coach and founder of communicationfornerds.com where she helps nerds get socially confident and live their best lives. She's also an executive at a Silicon Valley startup where she deals with multi-million dollar clients. If you like her stuff, visit communicationfornerds.com to get your free video course!