by Natasha Smith, User Experience and Communications Manager, National Democratic Training Committee, @traindems
Campaigns can seem daunting to people who have difficulty with small talk. Just the thought of approaching strangers and striking up a conversation with them can seem daunting. More people have problems with casual conversation than you might think. And many who appear good at it have just had time to practice.
The first step in getting over your distaste for small talk is realizing that it doesn’t need to be impersonal or vaguely alien. In fact, it can be quite comfortable. If you have the right questions to ask, you won’t need to spend five minutes chatting aimlessly about the weather.
One of the NDTC tenants is time and people are two of the three most valuable resources to your campaign. By efficiently using your time, you can establish strong relationships with people (your voters, volunteers, and staffers). If you struggle with small talk, here are some tips I’ve found to be helpful in developing the casual conversation skills that will benefit you on the campaign trail.
Body language says more than your voice.
Visual cues dictate the tone of a conversation, and the way you present yourself will convey more information about you than your words will. I’ve had more than a few people ask me if my day was going badly because of my resting state of crossed arms and a scowl on my face even if my day was going perfectly.
Being aware of the image you’re projecting and your body language habits helps you make adjustments as needed. If you catch yourself looming intimidatingly over someone or staring at the ground instead of making eye contact, try to open up your body language. You’ll look more inviting and foster a better conversation.
Draw the other person out.
While you are the candidate, the spotlight doesn’t always need to be on you. I’ve found that the best way to make a conversation more engaging is by asking people questions and letting them talk about themselves. Ask people about their interests, what they do when they’re not working for your campaign, or what they do outside of their day jobs.
Establishing a vested interest in the people who volunteer their personal time for you is especially crucial in maintaining the important resource of people. In the long run, these people will feel more committed to your campaign’s success.
Don’t be afraid to get personal.
You don’t need to tell people your deepest, darkest secrets, but revealing a bit about yourself can go a long way. By talking about your personal life — maybe about your dog, what recipes you like to cook, that parasailing is actually your secret passion — the people you’re conversing with will start to like you more because you’ve established that you trust them enough to reveal this information.
Let the other person speak.
Some people like to ramble on and on once they get going in a conversation. If you’re one of those people, check yourself. Recognize if you’re dominating the conversation with your stories.
A good way to practice giving other people space to speak is having a drink in hand, a bottle of water or a coffee, and making yourself take a sip when you realize you’re monopolizing the conversation. It gives the other person a chance to jump in and talk, too.
Ask the right questions.
There’s a difference between personal and invasive. You don’t want a conversation to sound like an interrogation. If you’re talking to someone you’re not too familiar with, ask that person a couple of follow-up questions to keep the conversation going and be more friendly.
People like to talk about themselves, especially when they’re being asked to. Where did they go on their most recent vacation? Is that a tradition or a something they did for the first time? What’s the best memory from that trip? Through this kind of dialogue, you can learn about that person’s interests and maybe even a little bit about his or her family and friends.
Sometimes a little bit of homework can help.
Try Googling ‘small talk questions.’ Having a list of conversational icebreakers in your back pocket can help kickstart a conversation or revive a dying one. There are plenty of lists online full of questions to help you carry a conversation.
Put the phone away if you can. We know how important it is to be connected 24/7 during the heat of a campaign. We get it — but phones hinder good conversation and can leave a bad impression with your conversational partner.
If you want to participate in a stimulating conversation and really engage the other person, leave your phone in your pocket or bag. Make eye contact and pay attention to what that person is saying. It makes a world of difference.
As with any other social skill, small talk gets easier with practice — which you will be getting plenty of as your campaign goes on. Don’t be afraid to approach people, especially your volunteers. They’re there to see you succeed and want to get to know you.
Casual conversation is a skill we can improve together every day. And like with anything and everything campaign-related, NDTC is here to help you.