With the new school year coming up as it always does, a series of other activities tag along for the ride. Taking tests, reading assignments, buying schools supplies, and, inevitably, meeting new people. Now we all know that when you meet new people, conversation is required. Speaking is required. And while you aren’t on a podium giving a speech, the task of starting small talk with someone next to you can be equally as daunting.
Have no fear, for even though the number one fear is that of public speaking, even the greatest nightmares end. There are many ways to brace yourself for the onslaught of small talk, and with enough practice, soon you may be ready to give a PowerPoint presentation without dropping your pointer.
Confidence is crucial
If you are confident about what you are talking about and if you are confident in how you present yourself, it shows through in your speaking. Now, if you aren’t confident, then fake it. If you pretend to be sure of yourself for long enough, you will eventually become confident (as Vonnegut said, you are what you pretend to be). Yet how can one simply pretend to be confident?
You can start by imagining yourself on equal footing with your audience, whether that audience be one person or an auditorium. Keep in mind that if you think that your audience is judging you, or critiquing you, that even if they are, your mistakes will soon be a lost memory. In most cases, people only worry about how they appear to others, and don’t particularly care about others act. It’s like when you are walking in heels and feel as though everyone is focused on how you are wobbling, when in fact they are looking down at their own feet. Everyone’s insecure, so in a way, everyone is equal. And if push comes to shove, you can always just imagine them in their underwear.
Another cliché you can follow to build confidence is to dress for success. Now this isn’t to say that you should wear a blazer everyday (though I do take a lot more risks when I wear a blazer, so it wouldn’t hurt to try), but being comfortable in your clothes can create a better environment for public speaking. Wearing jeans that are too tight or a shirt that doesn’t hang the right way may distract you from the important conversation at hand. But it’s not just clothes that create the illusion of composure; the way you hold yourself is also important. Slouching, fidgeting, not looking at your conversation partner, these all show signs of nervousness and may make your partner feel as though you aren’t interested in the topic. So sit up straight, calm down, and smile (but don’t force it, just let it all come naturally). Furthermore, people tend to talk faster when they are nervous. So take a deep breath, and slow down. You will be fine.
Understand your audience
Needless to say, if you are giving your valedictorian speech in front of the whole school, you won’t be talking about the weather. Yet even in day to day scenarios, understanding your audience can make a conversation flow much smoother. Now this isn’t to say you should stalk everyone on Facebook beforehand. Don’t do that, it ruins the surprise of getting to know someone (and makes you seem like a creep). If you like someone’s shirt, start there. Ask them where they got their shoes, or where they bought their binder. If you share a class, then it’s even easier. Misery loves company, and people often create a bond with those in their class who suffer through an awful midterm. So just find common ground with people, and your conversation will move on from there.
Practice makes perfect
If you are still unsure about your public speaking skills, try and practice with your own friends and family. If you feel comfortable with faking a conversation as strangers, by all means go ahead. If not, simply conversing more with others is in itself good practice. Talk to the people you already know about different topics, or socialize in larger groups of friends. Meet friends of your friends (where you already have the common ground of a shared friend), and start from there. Every step counts, and even if you still shake every time you get on stage, it will be completely normal. Public speaking may be the number one fear, but small talk doesn’t have to be.