No matter how shy or social you may be, there comes a point in every conversation with a new acquaintance where you draw blank. The back and forth may stall, or maybe you’ve started in on a subject you don’t know much about. Instead of having a panic attack and trying to think up a quick excuse to walk away, here are ten practical tips to keep a conversation going.
1. Be interested
Make sure you actually want to socialize. Or, if you don’t–for example, if it’s for a work or family function–then at least be a good actor! Be interested in the conversation you’re having, as well as the person you’re having it with. If you don’t seem interested (even if you are), then they won’t want to keep talking to you.
2. Ask questions
You can appear interested simply by asking questions. When someone brings up a topic, ask questions about it. This will not only show your interest and desire to learn more, it will keep the conversation going because your conversation partner will keep talking. If you’re unfamiliar with the topic of discussion, this will give you a chance to learn more, and then you’ll be able to participate in the conversation more.
3. Be a good listener
You can’t just ask questions to keep a conversation going. You have to listen to the answers, too. You have to take in the information the other person is giving you and remember it, or else you’ll keep talking in a circle by asking the same questions over and over.
4. Maintain eye contact
Maintaining eye contact is another good way to let the other person know you’re interested in the conversation. If you keep looking at other things around you, then you’ll appear distracted and uninterested in the conversation–even if you’re asking questions and keeping a good back and forth going! Looking directly at the person shows them that you’re focused only on them and the conversation at hand, not anything going on around you, and not anything else going on in your own head.
5. Have a list of topics
This doesn’t mean you have index cards with subjects on them, like you might have back in 7th grade, making that first nerve-wracking phone call to your crush. It just means you have topics in your mind that you’d like to discuss. Maybe it’s some current events that you’d like to hear others’ opinions on, or changes you’d like to make in your own life that the other person might have some knowledge about. Having a list of topics doesn’t have to be a physical list, but keeping a mental list will keep you from coming up blank when it’s your turn to change the subject.
6. Find common ground
When you find something you both have in common, it’s a good idea to stretch that thread into a longer conversation! You can find common ground during the course of the discussion, or you might be introduced by someone who already knows what you two have in common, and works it into the introduction.
7. Say what you’re thinking
This doesn’t mean you need to blurt out, “I hate your accent” or, “those shoes don’t match your pants.” Look at people around you who seem to have no trouble keeping a conversation going. What do you notice about them? They have no trouble talking because they’re uninhibited! They don’t worry if what they’re going to say next makes them sound stupid–they say what they’re thinking! You should do the same. It doesn’t mean you need to mention every silly thing that pops into your head, ranging from items on your To Do list to the weather this week. It just means they’re not over-thinking the conversation. They’re not trying to figure out if this topic is interesting enough to bring up. They simply bring it up and seeing how the conversation goes!
8. Use conversation threading
Conversation threading is when the other person says a statement that has many different parts you can pick up on and continue the discussion from. An example is when someone says, “last week, I traveled to Alaska for my job.” You could pick up on travel in general, and share some of your own stories, or ask questions about Alaska and what it’s like there, or start talking about the person’s job. You could ask where they work, how often they travel, or share if you travel for work or would like to. There are many different ways the conversation could go from that sentence alone, so listen for statements like that. It will help you direct where the conversation goes with your follow-up questions, instead of being led to a monologue you care nothing about.
It sounds silly, but it’s true. Practice is important in all things, and conversation is no exception! You can practice keeping a conversation going with a friend, family member, or the clerk at the grocery store. You can even practice all of these skills in online chats (except eye contact, unless you’re using a webcam!).
10. Know when to end a conversation
This is the clincher–literally! If your conversation is going well, it might be hard to know when to end it. You don’t want to interrupt the other person, but you don’t want the connection to run its course. It’s easier to end too early and want to talk to the person again, than to bore them by letting the conversation go too long. It’s hard to know how to stop a conversation, but you should always make it positive. Let the person know you want to talk to them again, and make sure you know how to get in touch with each other.
You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.
Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.
Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:
1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically
According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.
“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor
Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:
If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.
If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.
Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:
Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.
Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.
To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.
Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.
Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.
Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.
Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.
Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:
2. Focus on your goal
One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.
Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’
Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.
Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.
If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.
3. Convert negativity to positivity
There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?
‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’
It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.
Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”
Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.
Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:
4. Understand your content
Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.
However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.
“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor
Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.
Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.
One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.
5. Practice makes perfect
Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.
In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.
Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!
6. Be authentic
There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.
Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.
Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.
To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.
With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.
Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:
7. Post speech evaluation
Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.
Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation
We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.
You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.
Improve your next speech
As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:
How did I do?
Are there any areas for improvement?
Did I sound or look stressed?
Did I stumble on my words? Why?
Was I saying “um” too often?
How was the flow of the speech?
Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.
If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too: