My office has a parking garage. That parking garage is about a two-minute walk from my desk.
Most people would simply park their car and head into the office. But I’m not most people. I survey my surroundings to see if anyone else has arrived at the same time. If they have, I will fake text, fake email, fake call someone or real pick my nose until they have walked far enough towards the office that I won’t have make small talk like a normal adult.
You can imagine, then, that I find networking events a little intimidating, which is ironic considering the fact that I get up on stage 5 times a month and make stuff up for 25 minutes, entirely off the cuff.
I’ve been improvising for the last two years at The Improv Shop and I am the author of I’m Making All This Up, a blog about the St. Louis improv scene with tips on bridging the gap between improv and life.
Thankfully, all that training hasn’t gone completely to waste. Here are three quick tips I’ve learned from improv that can make you a pro at your next super awkward networking event.
Say Yes (And):
The guiding principle of improvisation, you accept the reality and build on it.
In a show, if my scene partner says we’re at the beach, then we’re at the beach. If he says I am an alien with depression, then I am an alien with a depression. And not only is that true, but I have to add value to that statement.
“Yes, I am an alien with depression and you’re my therapist. That’s why I’m here.”
In life, say yes to every opportunity you can – coffee with your best friend or a new acquaintance (even if it might be awkward at first), that writing project you don’t quite have time for, a trip you can’t exactly afford. Who knows what might happen.
When you say “yes,” you give yourself a chance to do something amazing that you didn’t know you could. When you say “and,” you build on your own or someone else’s ideas and make them stronger.
Listen and React:
Before a show, standing in the wings, my heart is racing. Will my scenes be good? Will I be funny? Will any girls in the audience give me their numbers?
But the minute I step on stage, I enter a flow state. I listen to what my scene partner is saying and respond directly to that, and somehow, magically, words flow out of my mouth. We build something together and 25 minutes fly by. I have never run out of things to say on stage.
In the parking lot before a networking event, I often wonder, “why did I come here?” What if I have nothing to say? But the minute I approach someone and say “Hi, I’m Ben,” a world of possibility opens.
When I listen to what this new person is saying, when I ask questions about things they’re saying that interest me, when I “yes, and” the conversation by adding my own perspective or related story, rather than just waiting for my turn to talk, conversation simply flows.
A lot of people spend their lives making small talk. But no one likes small talk. We would all just prefer to spend time with that one friend who we can really talk to. The person who knows our embarrassing secrets, deep insecurities, and true selves.
So why not treat everyone like that friend?
This is one of my favorite quotes, from the actor Steve Coogan: Twenty years ago, everyone had to be too cool for school and sneer at everything. Right now, the most avant-garde thing you can do is to be sincere.
Being too cool for school doesn’t make you cool. It makes you douchenozzle. Having the courage to be open with people, to be honest and allow yourself to be vulnerable, to freely give compliments or discuss your emotions will lead to richer relationships and a happier life. The more time you spend inventing a persona and playing a role, the less time you’ll spend making real friendships and real relationships.
Am I always confident as I walk into a networking event? No. Do I always take my own advice? Definitely not. But when I get inside and start talking, I just remember those three rules. I don’t make small talk anymore. I have a real conversation. And by the time the event is over, I haven’t just made new connections, I’ve made new friends.