“So tell me a little about yourself.”
Yes, you knew that question was coming. Whether it’s in the context of a job interview, a cocktail party or a meet-and-greet with the media, I’ve seen no shortage of individuals who, frankly, aren’t prepared to answer this. Sweaty palms, dry mouth, furtive eye contact, squeaky voice, stomach pain, tensed muscles, increased heart rate – they’re all symptoms of performance anxiety in which something significant is at stake.
These are the same people who – despite their intellect and high level of expertise – dread written exams, can’t sleep the night before a speech, or worry they’ll literally drop the ball in a sporting event. In extreme cases, they become self-deprecators. It’s not that they’re indifferent about their accomplishments; it’s just that they find it hard to believe anyone really cares about what they have to say. Any question that requires more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ makes them uneasy because they wonder whether the person asking is fishing for something that could subsequently come back and bite them. Thus, they play it safe by downplaying the very elements that could make their stories – and themselves – look interesting. In a nutshell, they not only become invisible but are also pretty much forgotten five minutes after they’ve left.
On the flip side are those whose confidence and charisma manage to intoxicate total strangers from the first moment they walk in. I call it The Lemur Effect – the endearing way in which the members of a huddle promptly stop what they’re doing, collectively look up, crane their necks and, with unabashed curiosity, check out the newcomer. The latter may not have brought food but nonetheless every lemur in the vicinity will be eating out of his or her hand in no time flat. Why? Because it’s hard to stay away from anything – or anyone – that’s such a profound source of fascination.
So how do you become that mesmerizing magnet? Seven simple steps – all of which can be practiced on a daily basis.
- Associate with the kind of people you want to be. If they’re interesting and passionate about the things they’re doing, chances are that some of that energy is going to rub off on you and help to expand your mental margins. If they’re gloomy, angry and negative, that’s going to rub off, too, and influence your own outlook. (Plus the fact that we really do tend to get judged by the company we keep.)
- Consider the importance of a good delivery. If, for example, a comedian’s patter was transcribed to print and read silently, it likely wouldn’t be that funny. Conversely, someone like Bob Newhart could read the California Tax Code and audiences would be convulsing with laughter. Keep in mind that words only account for about seven percent of what gets conveyed in a speech or conversation. The rest is the inflection, the body language, the facial expressions, and the pacing. If your subject matter is serious, those with whom you interact need to see that this topic is something you believe in with every fiber of your being.
- Have a memorable story to share that is neither a lecture, a brag nor a hard sell. Better yet, have two or three in your arsenal of social chatter. From the time we were children being read a bedtime tale, we’ve been programmed to pay more attention to anything we think is going to entertain, enlighten or surprise us. (Even as adults, we just can’t resist a compelling raconteur.) Be mindful, however, of keeping your stories short and snappy and leave your listeners wanting more rather than watching their eyes glaze over in pained politeness as you rabbit on and on and on. Channel your inner Scheherazade and make them curious about how many other interesting stories you know.
- Stay in the moment. A former colleague of mine in the publishing business is great at schmoozing during parties. The problem is that within about a minute of enthusiastically greeting you, his eyes are already darting around for the next person he has to say “hello” to. Granted, he’s in the business of working the whole room but he’s rarely in-the-moment even when he’s in the moment. For whatever amount of time you’re interacting with someone, s/he needs to feel you’re giving 100 percent of your attention and not regarding them as a placeholder until someone else comes along.
- Speak clearly, slowly and insert thoughtful pauses. This not only projects confidence but also suggests this is the very first time you’ve ever told a particular story (even if, in reality, it’s actually the hundredth). My husband, for instance, can attest that I have numerous anecdotes about my life in the theater, travels we’ve taken, and strange coworkers I’ve known. Although he has personally heard these stories countless times, it continues to amaze him that although I relate them in a casual manner which sounds as if I just now remembered them, the phrasing and pauses are always exactly the same. I credit this to my years on stage where the script never changes but every audience is brand new and doesn’t know what to expect.
- Smile genuinely at whoever makes eye contact with you. It projects that you’re positive, upbeat…and approachable. It also makes the recipient feel that you’re happy s/he is there, even if you’ve never previously met. Accordingly, it sets up a desire to remedy that situation with an introduction.
- Lastly, create opportunities to make the other person feel that s/he is the interesting one. Listen attentively, ask questions, and pay attention to the answers. Oftentimes this will result in other people thinking you were completely fascinating…even though they were the ones actually doing the lion’s share of talking.