How can I build conversational skills?

I'm a first year undergrad student, and I'm wondering on how I can build my confidence and conversational skills in general. I will probably start networking soon and also hope to talk to more people (namely, women) in college. Unfortunately, this pandemic has messed my college experience up socially. How do you guys build these skills? What's the best way to practice conversations? I know the common answer will probably be "just put yourself out there," but I'd like some more specificity. What kinds of uncomfortable situations should I force myself into so I can better communicate with women and professionals?

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Comments (23)

Mar 7, 2021 - 2:49am

I think you need to figure out where you are lacking. Some people are bad because they ignore social queues (inappropriate conversations), some get too close, some avoid eye contact, some aren't really good at keeping a conversation alive, some people are just shy and don't enjoy talking, some people are not confident enough. There are a lot of ways to be bad. Personally, I was always kind of shy but pretty social if I was around friends but terrible in larger group settings. Joining clubs really help and just striking up conversations with people in class or clubs and trying to make new friends will help. Also just develop your own personality and interests. It is way easier to hold a conversation if you have things you are interested in.

Mar 7, 2021 - 1:04pm

Like the above comment said, what exactly do you have trouble with? For me, it was just figuring out what to say to start the conversation. I know people say "hello" or give a compliment or something, but in my head it always felt so awkward to do that, but overtime (like a few months) it just got easier and felt more natural to say something to someone you don't know.

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Mar 7, 2021 - 3:05pm

TL;DR: Have more conversations. Ideally outside of your usual interests but you can't get good at conversations without practicing them, the same way you can't pick up a guitar and immediately play Freebird.

I tend towards introversion so this was a big issue for me and showed up on my first few years of reviews as an area for improvement. I went from being genuinely afraid to speak up on the phone/at the table/etc. to being a front-man for my firm at conferences. Here's what worked for me:

Practice it. Confidence comes from knowing you're competent, and competence comes from practice. Doesn't have to be finance/business/career/etc. related. Every time you get in an Uber, chat the driver up. Make conversation at the grocery store during checkout. Start as simple as "How's your day going". That type of mundane stuff actually helps. Every single call I do these days invariably starts with the same bullshit small-talk topics - Snows melted springs coming, COVID-19 sucks, nice WFH office, can't wait to travel, government fucked it on the lockdowns, blah blah blah. Hardly interesting stuff, but comparable to the types of convos you'd get from your Uber driver or grocer.. The same "muscles" you use to shoot the shit with the random guy on the street are used in "business" talk and networking with the C-suite/future employers/etc.

Put yourself in social situations (a form of practice). Tough to do in today's world, but this could be anything ranging from the finance club to asking your prof/TA for help to flirting with the rocket at a kegger. You said you wanted more specificity: join whatever club(s) you find interesting. When the world opens back up, attend as many university conferences as possible. Get on the planning committees. And when you get the chance to be face to face with people at these events (or even virtually on zoom), make an effort to start conversations with folks you don't know / don't know well. It can and will be painful/embarrassing at times but realize that everybody is human, everybody has put their foot in their mouth at least thrice, and everybody is more worried about themselves sounding stupid than they are about you being a poor conversationalist. 

Listen first. And when its your turn to speak... Why waste time say lot word when few word do trick? People will talk about themselves literally forever. Use this to your advantage. In a cold-calling/networking context, you may start by asking how they got to that firm or what they like about it or what their favourite deal is (etc.), then LISTEN to their response and craft your next statement/question accordingly. Try to find some form of common ground with folks as the conversation evolves and use that to build rapport. This goes for any conversation too.

If it's a more targeted context (IE, coffee chat with somebody in an industry you want to work in), come prepared. If you ask me for a coffee chat on entering PE I will almost always say yes and do whatever I realistically can to help you in your career, but if you roll up and know fuck all about private equity or my firm or my industry it will probably be the last you hear from me. When I first got to PE and had my first big dinner with port-co execs, I was seated between COO and President who each had worked in industry for more than 2x the number of years I'd been alive. One of my seniors sent me their resumes beforehand and told me to brush up on them, and use that for ammo if the conversation lulled. It worked like a charm and ties in to #3 - people fucking love to talk about themselves. 

Finally, re: women... 'I've always considered women to be people' (~George R. R. Martin) and therefore have no difference in my approach to conversation whatsoever between men and women. If you're a guy and are nervous around girls, totally understand that, and the only way you'll get over that is practice and repetition. If you're a dude asking about how to talk to women so you can get laid, my #1 piece of advice is to learn to embrace rejection. Cause you're gonna get fucking rejected by women (or men) in a dating/sex context, the same way you're gonna get fucking rejected in the job application process. 

Sorry you have the unfortunate circumstance of entering uni during the pandemic, and good luck with conversations/confidence - it gets easier.

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Mar 8, 2021 - 9:54am

This may or may not help your current situation re: pandemic/college experience, but the older I've gotten the more I've tried to "stay relevant" on a bunch of different topics, even if I don't genuinely find them interesting. You never know what random people are into so I've found that by making myself more well-rounded on some topics has allowed me to join conversations and have an opinion. Even if the opinion is controversial, it's allowed me to get plugged in and make connections. You don't need to become an expert on everything, but again I have found this has helped me personally. 

Also, would reiterate to become a good listener. If you don't know your audience and verbal vomit random stuff just to say something you might turn people off from having a further, or future, conversation with you. 

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Mar 9, 2021 - 12:08am

What have you done to learn about different topics? Reading different books on say art, politics, geography? If so, do you have any recommendations?

Mar 9, 2021 - 2:26pm
  • Reading
    • Books, articles, anything reputable etc.
  • Watch
    • Netflix documentaries, Master Class (found this really helpful)
  • Experiences
    • Get out and try things 
    • Take dance lessons, shooting lessons, art or cooking classes, whatever
    • Attend virtual panel events 

There's a ton of stuff out there that did not particularly interest me, but I forced myself to read/watch/attend to try to learn more about it. I've actually been shocked at how much some things have resonated with me that I didn't have an interest in before and I've been able to find common interests that popped up through normal conversations over time.

Mar 8, 2021 - 7:16pm

It really sucks that you're entering college in the middle of the pandemic, that is unfortunate. Join clubs and meet up with people in real life if you can (the pandemic is dying down anyways), talk to strangers, talk to everyone. Also I am a fan of the app Clubhouse - you can talk to strangers 24/7 on there about any topic you can imagine. Best of luck, it's a marathon not a sprint king. 

Mar 8, 2021 - 7:25pm

1. Read "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie to improve socializing in general

2. Read "Models" by Mark Manson to improve talking to women (dating-wise)

3. Try and pay more attention to microexpressions and context in general

1 and 2 gave me a framework and helped me start thinking about things I didn't and 3 helped me put that in practice. 

Mar 8, 2021 - 11:04pm

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What's the best way to practice conversations? 

get a girlfriend

"If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." - Bruce Lee

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Mar 8, 2021 - 11:09pm

Lmao this is a catch 22. I need to learn conversations in order to get a girlfriend.

Mar 9, 2021 - 1:01am

I'm not naturally a talkative type.  However, I have lot's of interests.  Here's my method. Say you're at party (or conference or networking event) and you see the social butterflies and the wall of backs turned towards you, seemingly unaware and uninterested in your existence.  
 

At this party are other people just like you, wanting to talk and meet people.  Seek them out.  They might also be wondering how to get in on conversations.  Go up to them, introduce yourself.  What happens next is likely other people will stop and want to meet your new found group.

If you flip your mindset a bit, and think, hey I'm going to talk to people looking for conversations, then I think you'll get a bit more courage.  Kind of like a mission to help others or create a fluid marketplace for interactions.  I've used this technique to go beyond myself and take risks in social settings. Create a mission that is beyond helping your bubbling shy self.  In undergrad, I created this mindset and noticed a problem/underserved area of need and created a new student club, standing in front of large lecture halls pitching the club that would help students with career planning.  Totally outside my baseline risk zone.

Regarding girls/women.  Helps to be good looking, but confidence and being fun loving are keys in my mind.  I once had a saying, having fun and enjoying life is the currency of relationships.  Do what you enjoy, have fun, share it and you'll be more attractive. People can see and feel that. 
 

Give me a banana and I'll get to the sex part 

Have compassion as well as ambition and you’ll go far in life
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Mar 9, 2021 - 2:46am

odog808

I'm not naturally a talkative type.  However, I have lot's of interests.  Here's my method. Say you're at party (or conference or networking event) and you see the social butterflies and the wall of backs turned towards you, seemingly unaware and uninterested in your existence.  
 

At this party are other people just like you, wanting to talk and meet people.  Seek them out.  They might also be wondering how to get in on conversations.  Go up to them, introduce yourself.  What happens next is likely other people will stop and want to meet your new found group.

If you flip your mindset a bit, and think, hey I'm going to talk to people looking for conversations, then I think you'll get a bit more courage.  Kind of like a mission to help others or create a fluid marketplace for interactions.  I've used this technique to go beyond myself and take risks in social settings. Create a mission that is beyond helping your bubbling shy self.  In undergrad, I created this mindset and noticed a problem/underserved area of need and created a new student club, standing in front of large lecture halls pitching the club that would help students with career planning.  Totally outside my baseline risk zone.

Regarding girls/women.  Helps to be good looking, but confidence and being fun loving are keys in my mind.  I once had a saying, having fun and enjoying life is the currency of relationships.  Do what you enjoy, have fun, share it and you'll be more attractive. People can see and feel that. 
 

Give me a banana and I'll get to the sex part 

Since you could have been my son a couple decades ago while I was in college, here's my take:

  • Product Market Fit: My observation of sex is everyone has a market.  Women have the broadest market for partners.  Men have varying markets - blockbuster, indie, international.  What's important is to find your market, ie what types of women like you?  I've known women who were single for a while who only liked a certain type of guy, but found love when they broaden their market.  I think in college, you're going to get an "extra freshman year" in terms of the newness of the experience.  Everyone will be in the same boat.  Anyways find your market.
     
  • Mitigate Rejection Risk while being Opportunistic: I've never been the get rejected 99 times out of 100 type. The costs to my ego are too daunting.  I believe I'm like you, I play it kind of safe.  You can tell a lot if someone likes you if they will hang out with you.  For example, I asked my wife (a friend at the time) right after she told me she broke up with her bf if she wanted to go study.  Risk adjusted, studying is not a huge ask.  Find ways to make little asks to get cues.
  • Find and listen to that Voice: maybe I'm a spiritual guy and believes that an ancestor sends a lightning bolt to my head at the right moment to ask the right question or deed, that changes the game.  You my son need to listen to that voice.  Subconsciously a lot goes on, but that voice should appear once every 2-3 years and be meaningful.  This could also be called Animal Instincts.

This is supposed to be sex advice.  Get better looking.  Workout at a minimum.  Get ripped arms, that's the most value add for the effort.  Next, learn to dance for the clubs (you folks still do that right?).  Not crazy dancing, but mix poor lighting, having fun, and alcohol and many a hook ups happen.  Next, throw parties.  Start out with get togethers.  Always collaborate when you can.  You are an entrepreneur - need to maximize you chances for a critical mass, you want to get your friends dancing. Combine birthday parties, someone else's party, whatever with your party.  Invest in a disco ball.  
 

Ok.  You're somewhat ripped, you throw good parties, you talk to random people because you want to help them, you ask the girl you like if she'd want to study with you, and you listen to your spiritual Voice (maybe your great great grandfather) tell you to shoot your shot now.  You will have sex.  I guarantee.

I'm all for fatherly advice.  My late dad used to buy me the 42 pack of Trojans from Costco (they gave 2 extra if buying bulk), so I wouldn't have a kid in college.  It is all just part of life to wonder about this stuff.  My advice is if you fall in love with a great person in college to hold on to them.  Nothing better than to share a life of ups and downs together.

Have compassion as well as ambition and you’ll go far in life
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