A Childlike Experience

Warming yourself up psychologically and getting into the general mood to socialize on a daily basis are important aspects of being great at small talk, but just as important is the way you prepare your body. Think of it this way: conversation is a race, and you have to warm up and prepare yourself accordingly.

When we want our best race, whether athletic or academic, we always engage in some type of warm-up. It’s almost common sense at this point that you need to prime your body and mind to the kind of performance that you want. Runners stretch, singers sing scales. What about people engaging in conversation?

Well, you might be surprised by how much help your speaking muscles need and how getting them in shape can make you instantly more charismatic. Recall back in grade school when you weren’t paying attention, the teacher called on you, and you had to spend five seconds clearing your throat while still sounding meek and awkward because you weren’t prepared. That’s what we are seeking to eliminate, as well as imbuing you with a sense of confidence.

To warm up your conversation and small talk skills, you just need to do something we’ve done almost every day in our lives: read out loud.

It sounds simple, but reading out loud this time will be different from any other it because you will have a purpose. I’ve provided an excerpt from the Wizard of Oz, which is in the public domain—for those copyright police out there. If this doesn’t pique your interest, you can feel free to find your own excerpt. Just try to make sure there is a multitude of emotions included, preferably with dialogue from different characters. Here it is:

After climbing down from the china wall the travelers found themselves in a disagreeable country, full of bogs and marshes and covered with tall, rank grass. It was difficult to walk without falling into muddy holes, for the grass was so thick that it hid them from sight.

However, by carefully picking their way, they got safely along until they reached solid ground. But here the country seemed wilder than ever, and after a long and tiresome walk through the underbrush they entered another forest, where the trees were bigger and older than any they had ever seen.

“This forest is perfectly delightful,” declared the Lion, looking around him with joy. “Never have I seen a more beautiful place.”

“It seems gloomy,” said the Scarecrow.

“Not a bit of it,” answered the Lion. “I should like to live here all my life. See how soft the dried leaves are under your feet and how rich and green the moss is that clings to these old trees. Surely no wild beast could wish a pleasanter home.”

“Perhaps there are wild beasts in the forest now,” said Dorothy.

“I suppose there are,” returned the Lion, “but I do not see any of them about.”

They walked through the forest until it became too dark to go any farther. Dorothy and Toto and the Lion lay down to sleep, while the Woodman and the Scarecrow kept watch over them as usual.

Seems like an easy task, right? Go ahead and try to read the above excerpt out loud to yourself. Don’t be shy. If you actually did it, you’ll notice that you do literally feel warmed up and more ready to keep speaking and conversing after just using your vocal cords for a bit. But that’s just the beginning. Now comes the instruction.

Pretend like you are reading the excerpt out loud to a class of second graders. Read the excerpt like you’re giving a performance in a contest, and the winner is judged on how emotional and ridiculous they can be! Pretend you’re a voice actor for a movie trailer and you have only your voice to convey a wide range of emotion. Go as far over the top as possible—which, granted, won’t be much at first.

Exaggerate every emotion you can find to the tenth degree. Scream parts of the story while whispering in other parts. Use different and zany voices for different characters. Make any laughter maniacal, make any rage boiling, make any happiness manic—you get the idea. For that matter, what emotions are you picking up in the text? Even in such a short excerpt, there are emotional high and low points. Express them, and make them sound like climaxes to stretch your range of emotion.

Pay attention to your voice tonality. Are you accustomed to using a monotone? Would someone be able to tell what the character or narrator is thinking or trying to convey by listening to you? Use the excerpt to practice your range of vocal expressiveness—try to embody the term emotional diversity. Go ahead and try it for the second time with all this newfound instruction.

Did you hear a difference? Here is some additional instruction: pay attention to your diction and how you enunciate. In a sense, you are literally warming your tongue up so you don’t stutter or stumble on your words when you talk to others. This is another reason to have an excerpt with dialogue—the greater the diversity of the text you are reading, the better warmed up you will be. If you have the habit of muttering like a curmudgeon, put a stop to it and make sure you are speaking clear as a bell.

Pay attention to your breathing. Do you feel like you’re running out of breath? It’s because your diaphragm is weak and not used to projecting or sounding confident. That’s the reason singers put their hands on their stomachs—it’s to check that their diaphragms are engaged. Try it and make sure that your stomach is taut and tight.

The point here is to literally breathe life into the words that you are speaking. Those who speak without their diaphragm inevitably come off as quiet, meek, and mouse-like. The better you can project your voice, the wider the emotional range you can create.

Another key element of how you say something is, of course, your pacing—the speed at which you talk. Your speaking speed can either be your friend or undermine what you’re trying to say. Rate of speech can imply an emotion all by itself—for instance, when making a big point, you should slow your pace to allow the impact to be felt. If you use the wrong speed or your pacing is off, a lot of what you have to say can easily be lost or confused and misinterpreted. In addition, well-timed pauses can say just as much as an expression through words.

Ready to read through the excerpt one more time? Make sure you’re utilizing everything you just read. Now compare your third version to the first version you did without any instruction. That’s the difference between warming yourself up and not, and most likely, the first version is how you’re coming across the vast majority of the time. Hopefully that’s illustrative enough evidence for the benefits of warming up.

Was this exercise, along with all the included direction, a massive challenge for you? It’s probably a good idea to evaluate how unexpressive you are coming off in everyday conversations.

The added bonus is that while you are feeling silly and over the top, you are actually stretching your limits in terms of emotional and vocal expressiveness. The simple act of getting out of your comfort zone, even in private, will extend your boundaries and make you more expressive and confident-sounding in general. All this from reading out loud? Yes, if done with purpose and deliberation!

Your Conversation Résumé

Previous points in this chapter about pre-conversation have centered around your psychology and your physiology. In other words, to hit the ground running and have great small talk, you’ve got to find ways to put yourself in the mood for it. However, we haven’t covered what to actually say yet, have we? Now we’ll rectify that.

As mentioned before, conversation isn’t always about thinking quickly on your feet in the heat of the moment. That’s an entirely different skill that can be developed, but what’s more easy and useful on a daily basis is to create for yourself a conversation résumé, which you can draw from in nearly every conversation.

What the heck does this mean? Well, a couple of things.

First, we don’t really think about ourselves and what is interesting about us to others. Have you ever played the game “two truths and a lie”? It’s a social ice-breaking game where you are supposed to name interesting facts and stories about yourself—but this is pretty difficult for most of us because we simply don’t often ask ourselves, What do people want to hear about us? Constructing this resume helps confirm your identity, quirks, accomplishments, and unique perspectives; in fact, it helps us gain self-awareness and self-confidence.

Second, when we’re in the heat of a conversation and an awkward silence is looming, sometimes we stress and our minds blank completely. We try to think on our feet, but our feet are frozen to the floor. A conversation résumé comes to the rescue because it is an annotated overview of who you are. It’s a brief list of your best and funniest stories, your notable accomplishments, your unique experiences, and viewpoints on salient and topical issues. It allows you to keep your best bits ready for usage.

It’s no different from a résumé you would use for a job interview—but with a very different purpose in mind here. Know your personal talking points, rehearse them, and be ready to unleash them whenever necessary. However, just like in a job interview, having this résumé allows you to present the version of yourself that you most want others to see.

It may seem inconsequential to have such thoughts prepared, but imagine how excruciating the silence is in a job interview when you have to scramble, think of an answer on the fly, and respond while knowing your words are generic or useless. If someone asks you what your biggest flaw is, you won’t have to grasp for straws, and instead can begin expounding on why the fact that you are too dedicated and work too hard can be a flaw.

It’s the difference between having a good answer or story when someone asks, “What did you do last weekend?” versus simply saying, “Oh, not too much. Some TV. What about you?” And how few of us can answer the following without stuttering and stalling: “So what’s your story?” The conversation résumé allows you to remind yourself that you’re not such a boring person after all, and that people should have reason to be interested in you and what you have to say.

Developing and constantly updating your conversation résumé can save you from awkward silences and make it nearly effortless to connect with others. It may feel difficult to come up with right now, but imagine how much easier it will be without the stress of someone staring at you, waiting for your reply. It’s this process of mental agony that will translate to real conversational success. What you come up with on your résumé won’t always make it into everyday conversation, but the more you have it on your brain, the more it will be apparent to others, and the more captivating you will become.