By William Kennedy January 13, 2017

5 Ways To Improve Your Soft Skills by Analyzing What Celebrities Do

As you know, being a programmer involves interaction with other humans, both online and offline. This inevitably involves small talk. I remember the first time I went to a tech meetup, and how awkward it was to build a rapport with new people. There were two reasons for this: the first was that I was still learning to code and felt out of my depth. The second reason was that I was afraid to actively try and strike a rapport with people. I struggled to come up with a line to break the ice. I never had any problems being relatable to people in school because I could always talk to people about school. It was the same at sports clubs and even at work. Yet in this brand new environment, I struggled to create a conversation starter which left me floating on the fringe of different groups. Following that experience, I resolved to improve my social skills and small talk.

Small talk must be one of the most underrated skills out there.

Becoming better at small talk is useful in a vast number of situations. Think of when you meet your spouse’s family for the first time. You want to impress, and the last thing you want to be is Ben Stiller from Meet the Parents.

If you have ever felt awkward at meetups, or you feel you are too shy and introverted for small talk, then this blog post is for you. Here are 5 tactics you can use to improve your conversational skills and draw that crowd in.

1. Build Rapport

We all have that one friend who lights up a room when they enter it. Everyone connects with their energy and humor. Observe what they do that is so different. Do they make jokes? Do they have interesting ways of starting conversations with strangers? Make a mental note of what they do and see if you can replicate it, but with your own spin on it.

Another great way to learn is through watching interviews with charismatic people on Youtube. Take a look at celebrities that don't have a lot of “haters.” Some good examples include Chris Pratt, Will Smith, and Jennifer Lawrence. For the most part, these celebrities have overwhelming popular support.

These people are masters of socializing because they not only win over the host but also the public. Take a look at this video where the vlogger gives a breakdown of how Jennifer Lawrence relates to people:

Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant at telling vulnerable stories and using self-deprecating humor, which is a great way of becoming more relatable to others. Self-deprecating humor can be an especially reliable indicator not only of general intelligence and verbal creativity, but also of humility. It is the opposite of blowing your own trumpet and arrogantly listing the reasons why you are great. Now, it is important not to use self-deprecating humor about something you are insecure about, as this can come off as awkward. We don't want to make a joke that hangs in the air like a bad fart.  If you're going to be self-deprecating, make sure that you joke about a personal blemish that you don't really mind, or actually quite like about yourself.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is another person who has had an amazing career this year. Here is a great video that demonstrates how The Rock gains presence in interviews:

Notice how he builds people up. It is hard not to like him when he gives off so many positive vibes. He smiles and invites attention with his animated physical presence.

Of course, you should not simply act like Jennifer Lawrence or The Rock. You need to take what you observe and put your own spin on it, so it is genuinely from you. This will make it authentic.

2. Practice Openings in Low-Risk Situations

A fun game I sometimes play at Starbucks with friends is to create a fake name that matches my friend’s. For instance, my cousin Dave ordered coffee first the last time we visited Starbucks.

So I told the barista that my name was nGoliath. She started talking to me about my unusual name—then she saw my cousin's name. Pretty soon, it dawned on her that she was part of an elaborate plan for me to get this picture:

soft skills

It might seem like a silly game, but this moment made me stand out among 1000s of other Starbucks customers. That girl still remembered me when I visited a week later with another friend.

When it comes to small talk, it is good to do something different that stands out from everyone else. Try these tactics in less risky situations where there is little to lose.

Before a professional comedian plays at large venues, they write and test their material in small venues. The jokes are refined until they are perfect. Pretty soon, they reach a stage where the material can go on tour.

This principle carries through to small talk. It is important to practice different openings with different people in low-risk situations. The feedback we get leads us to refine our opening lines. We can use these opening lines to roll out more complex and engaging material.

3. Collect Stories and Phrases

It is good to collect stories for particular situations. They don't have to be funny stories, either, as long as they are interesting for the other person.

The problem with a lot of people's stories is that they lack relevance to those listening to them. A good rule of thumb is to remember what's in it for the listener. A story must benefit people in some way, whether it ends in a joke or some juicy gossip, or is just plain cool.

Starting collecting stories that you can use to make you the life of the party. Watch and observe the reaction you get from these stories. Either tweak it until it is perfect or kill it if it's not good enough. This is the same process as that used by comedians to test their material before making it mainstream.

Here are two clips of Bill Burr, where he makes a joke about Hillary Clinton being involved in the Bilderberg conspiracy. Notice in the first clip at (1.39), he didn't get a huge laugh and quickly moved on to something else.

Notice, in the second interview, he tries a different way to word the same joke (3.34).

This is Bill Burr in action, refining his joke. Bill Burr is one of my favorite comedians at the moment. He offers a lot of insights into his craft via his podcast but be warned, he is not PC.

4. Become Interested in People

One thing I’ve noticed is that people really engage with you when you get personable with them. If you actually ask them real, interested questions that get them to open up and talk about themselves, you’re golden. I believe Graham Norton, host of the BBC chat show, The Graham Norton Show, has a great talent for this.

One of the things that makes The Graham Norton Show interesting is the level of research he does on his guests. With all his information gathered, he has a collection of conversational prompts ready to go. Despite the show being called after the host, you learn loads of fun stories about the guests.

Here he is in action, prompting Chris Pratt to do magic which very few people knew he could do:

Another thing that we can learn from watching this show is how difficult it is to be funny when you're asked to be funny on the spot. Norton has a section of the show called the Red Chair, where members of the public try to tell a funny story. If the story is not funny, then Norton presses a switch that flips the person backward. If the story gets a laugh, the contestant walks away with their dignity intact. Norton is brilliant at conversation starters, and here at Simple Programmer, John has made a great video about conversation starters that I highly recommend.

Another great person to watch in this space is Oprah Winfrey. Oprah has many moments but none more famous than when she made Tom Cruise jump on her couch and declare his undying love. She had done her research and Tom responded enthusiastically.

Doing this level of research on people is now easier than ever. Keith Ferrazzi, of the book Never Eat Alone, recommends using social media to research people before you meet them. This lets you start conversations based on what they shared on social media. For example, one of my friends works at Microsoft. On his social media, he shares a lot about his fitness journey into powerlifting. The second time I met him, I used this information to start a deep conversation about different aspects of the sport (I’m also a powerlifter). We ended up connecting further and staying in touch even though he lives halfway across the world.

5. Become Present in the Conversation

Asking relevant questions at the right moments requires you to pay attention. In conversation, a lot of people have the tendency to respond, rather than the tendency to listen; they aren’t present in the conversation because they are focused on what they want to say and not what the other person is saying. Focussing more on the other person is known as active listening.

A form of active listening is to paraphrase back what the person has said to ensure that both participants in the conversation understand each other. Paraphrasing is also a great technique to clarify what your client is looking for, whether you are freelancing or in a megacorp.

Listening is a difficult thing to do. It is more involved than simply standing there and nodding. A huge challenge I had (and still have) is stopping my brain from daydreaming. When your eyes become vacant, people can instinctively feel that something is wrong. Have you ever spoken to someone who is not paying attention? If not, ask a teacher, and they will quickly tell you how annoying it is when a student is staring into space.

If you ever find your mind drifting away in conversation, do the following:

  • Wiggle your toes and focus on the sensation in them
  • Focus on your breath as it comes in and out of your body

After a few moment, your mind will drift back into the conversation. This might read like pseudo-science but it works. I picked it up from a great book called The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane.

Now Go Practice!

I hope this post has been useful to you. If you want to learn more, then I highly recommend practicing the above in the real world. Start with something that’s low-risk, perfect what works, abandon what doesn’t, and soon you’ll be far more confident interacting with others, no matter who they are. But you have to take action.

Social skills need to be practiced. You cannot just read about them and believe they are there. Like any other skill, they need to be harnessed through training and honed to show how engaging you are, and that won’t happen overnight. But if you persevere and stay genuine, you will definitely see improvement—not just with the soft skills you use at work but in every area of your life you employ them.

About the author

William Kennedy

William is a self-taught software developer who went from a job he hates to a job he now loves. As well as writing about himself in the 3rd person, he breaks down exactly what you need to do if you want to get your first job as a software developer on his blog and newsletter.