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You can’t do any of it without talking to people. But how do you open up if you think you’re the queen or king of awkward? Or you’re convinced you’re not that interesting?
Vanessa Van Edwards can relate. Now the lead investigator at the Science of People, a human behavior research lab, and author of “Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People,” she calls herself “a recovering boring person."
“I think that we become boring out of fear. I was afraid of being rejected so I completely shut down and was afraid to participate in anything. In conversations, I was afraid of being judged so I didn't say anything or would think of the most generic answer possible,” Van Edwards, 32, told TODAY.
“I made the mistake many recovering awkward people make, which is that if we are not noticed, we can't be hurt. The problem is that this doesn't work. Safety doesn't come from social retreat. It comes from social adventure.”
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Van Edwards became determined to be more bold when she was a senior in college, trying new conversation starters, working on her posture and studying body language cues. It was “life changing,” she said.
Here are her tips for talking to anyone:
When you want to approach someone you find attractive:
The biggest mistakes people make: Thinking you’re being obvious with your glances and smiles, when in reality you’re not that expressive at all, Van Edwards said. Researchers call it "signal amplification bias."
What to do: If you find someone attractive, you may have to be more direct to actually let them know you are interested. Don't just make a few quick glances — hold their eye contact from across the room and make a “cheers” gesture towards them with your glass in the air. Don't just smile — smile and tell them you noticed them when they walked in.
“Sure, this opens you up to being rejected, but what's worse: [That] or someone liking you and thinking you're not interested? What a missed opportunity,” Van Edwards said.
Research shows the single best pick-up line ever is: “Hello, how are you?” That's because the simpler the pick-up line, the more confident you seem, she said.
To chat up a stranger without being cheesy or creepy, Van Edwards suggested using context cues. That means anything in your environment is fair game — the more casual the better. Is your intended drinking a fun-looking drink? Ask what it is and if it's good.
Is there a buffet with amazing wings? Say, "Wow, did you try those wings, they were so much better than I expected!"
Do you know the host? Ask if they do as well. If so, you get to share back stories. If not, you can ask what brings them to the event.
On a date:
The biggest mistakes people make: Trying to be an ideal version of yourself instead of who you actually are, Van Edwards said. “This sets you up for disaster — either imminent, where you come across as inauthentic; or postponed, where someone discovers the real you and they feel duped.”
What to do: Be yourself, admit to vulnerabilities and don't always have the perfect answer. Research shows we can sniff out fake when we see it, she noted.
Some conversation starters to keep in mind:
- Tell me about you.
- What personal passion project are you working on right now?
- What was the highlight of your day today?
- What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekends?
Don't be afraid of pauses in conversation.
“Nothing is worse than someone interrupting you because they are afraid of the conversation dying,” Van Edwards said.
Just take a sip of wine or a bite of food and think of it as your chance to go deeper and ask what you've been wondering about.
She loves saying something like, "I've been meaning to ask you..." or "You know, I was wondering..."
It’s a subtle transition that lightly acknowledges the pause and helps you ask something you truly wanted to know. Pauses are opportunities, Van Edwards noted.
Interacting with your boss:
The biggest mistakes people make: Being intimidated and treating your boss as if she’s not like you, which breeds distance and awkwardness, Van Edwards said.
“Your boss loves great conversation, fun jokes and catching up just as much as your colleague, friend or partner,” she noted. “Remember, your boss is a daughter or a son or a husband or a wife or a friend to someone else, just like you.”
What to do: Van Edwards’ favorite question to ask a boss or VIP is: “Working on anything exciting recently?”
Their answer might surprise you — it could be a project you know about, but it could also be an outside hobby, a new secret venture or even a side project you haven’t heard about. “Everyone has something they are excited about, try to find it,” she advised.
At a networking event where you don’t know anyone:
The biggest mistake people make: To go in wanting, whether it’s business, contacts or advice, Van Edwards said. “People can smell this a mile away and it feels fake. It might produce more quantity contacts, but not high quality contacts,” she noted.
What to do: Picking a good place to stand is key. In speed networking experiments, Van Edwards found the top networkers — the ones who had the best time and collected the most business cards — stood right where people exit the bar.
“This is a really easy place to strike up conversation and you have a constant influx of new people who can join,” she said.
Learn a few light, basic questions:
- Enjoying the conference so far?
- How are you liking today’s sessions?
- Come to a lot of conferences like this?
- What brings you to this session?
Be "interested and interesting," Van Edwards advised. Research has found people are less likely to remember what you say and more likely to remember what they say. Leverage this by helping people be funnier, tell great stories and setting them up to be more interesting and impressive.