3 Acting Exercises That Can Help Introverts Have Better Conversations
Quick ideas from the world of acting to level up your conversation game — even if you’re shy
As an introvert with social anxiety, I was not good at conversation. I didn’t say much at all. But now I’m having more fun conversing than ever. I found three tricks particularly helpful in getting me here, and they’re quick and easy enough for anyone to do.
In my training and career as an actor, I did all sorts of mind-stretching activities, but my conversations improved immeasurably thanks to these three exercises. When conversations get better, life gets better. As author Linda Lambert says, “One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever.”
These exercises are super simple. I’m a great believer in simple things that work. You could read a whole book on conversation and be no better at it afterward. We don’t get better at conversation by knowing information about conversation. We need to practice and to change our neural pathways.
Commit to doing these exercises for one week. It takes just a few minutes a day, and you’ll soon start to see a difference. Then, when it starts working for you, ramp it up. If you’re quiet, shy, not so expressive, or introverted, then they’ll help the most — but anyone can benefit. It took me just a week to see improvements and then I couldn’t help but continue practicing.
I’ve written before on charisma and chemistry in conversation. Trusting yourself to focus on the other person and listen can be difficult if you’re unsure that you’ll find the words when you need them. This is a way to make sure that the words will come — and be delivered in interesting and expressive ways — at exactly the right time.
1. Talking, Talking, Talking
This technique comes from acting advice given to improvisational actors who aren’t always sure what to say.
Set a timer for three minutes. Turn on your phone’s video camera and point it towards your face. Start recording.
For three minutes straight, just keep talking into the camera. That’s it.
It doesn’t matter what about. It doesn’t matter if you flip between topics. It doesn’t matter if you stumble and stutter. It doesn’t matter even if your words make no sense. Just keep talking.
If you feel a pause, interject with absolutely anything, and follow it up. Keep going and don’t stop until the three minutes are up. The content doesn’t matter. Just talk, talk, talk!
Watch your recording. Then repeat the exercise three times.
Why this works
There are multiple benefits to this. First, you get used to hearing your voice recorded. It can be horribly cringey at first, but you soon get used to it. Only then do you start to hear your voice as a normal human voice like anyone else has.
It only sounds weird to you at first because it sounds different from your live voice, because of the way your voice is conducted to your ears through your face bones.
The second benefit of this technique is that it trains our brains to keep talking and not just stop after an initial thought. As introverts, we often like to say what we think is important, and stop there. Going beyond that can feel like just talking for the sake of talking, and that’s not what we’re wired for.
But if we do make ourselves keep talking, we’ll realize that, often, we actually do have more important, relevant, or simply fun things to say. We just usually stop speaking before it has a chance to come out. We like to think before we speak, but by speaking before we think, we can learn to trust that we often do have more to say after all.
Finally, when watching back, we can see how sudden changes of topic are actually not as jarring as they feel in our heads. They’re actually quite normal. Because as introverts, we’re sensitive to this, so we think a sudden topic switch will draw attention to itself and to us. But it’s really not as bad as we think — not by a long way.
All those big, abrupt changes of topics in our head while speaking to the camera all seem far smaller and natural when we watch the replay. We don’t even notice them all. It boosts our confidence to go into a conversation and change up the topic when we see fit.
All those “ummms” and “errrs” that feel like they take an eternity to bridge real words suddenly seem quick and natural when you watch it back. It’s normal, even in public speakers. Just watch a video of Boris Johnson.
In essence, this method trains our brains to be comfortable saying more. This will help your conversations flow. You’ll learn to trust yourself to keep talking and not stop when you’ve made just your main point, and change topic comfortably because you’ll have learned that it doesn’t jar as much as you thought. It will also help conversations be less one-sided if you’re with a more chatty person than you.
2. Talk Big, Talk Small, Talk Fast, Talk Slow… Go!
This technique comes from advice given to training actors who could use a bit more expressiveness in their work. It works great for real life, too.
Exactly as before. Set a three-minute timer and set your phone camera to record yourself.
Think of a topic to talk about that you’re knowledgeable about. Absolutely anything — even if it’s yourself. It really doesn’t matter. Then start the timer and talk about that topic for three minutes.
This time, you don’t necessarily have to talk non-stop. The aim is to change things up and hugely exaggerate your delivery. Say some bits unnaturally fast, and others unnaturally slow. Leave big pauses. Use your full vocal range from low to high. Punctuate unusual points verbally. Exaggerate things with your tone of voice. Whisper. Shout. Rein it in and make big points quietly. Do things that feel unnatural.
Keep the content of the words factual and conversational, but change the delivery to stretch well beyond how you would normally speak in a conversation.
Bring in facial expressions and body language. Bring in excitement and annoyance. Giggle. Have fun.
After your first few attempts, you might wish to extend the timer to four or even five minutes — time can fly doing this.
Watch your recording and then repeat three times.
Why this works
As introverts, we often like to express things with clear, thought-out points rather than by being expressive with the tone of voice. If we get too expressive, we can feel self-conscious.
The thing is, even though we feel self-conscious due to extra expression, chances are no one will have noticed much difference at all. People see hugely expressive people all the time and are calibrated to that—not to us. When we watch our recordings, we will see that even if we feel like we’re doing something well over the top, in reality, it might be only a slight difference. It gives us the confidence to play a bit more and be more expressive, knowing that even if we feel self-conscious, no one else will probably notice anyway. We can let go a bit.
If we can allow ourselves to be more expressive, what we say will be more interesting to listen to. As introverts, a lot of what we say is already well thought out and interesting, but if it’s not expressed as such, then people won’t necessarily perceive it as such.
Although those pop-psych statistics that say 90% of communication is nonverbal aren’t exactly based on scientific reality, there is some truth behind the fact that communication beyond just words is very important. By going massively over-the-top in being expressive — and then watching it back and learning that we’re not necessarily being that over-the-top after all — we can allow ourselves to be freer in conversation when we want to. We’ll be more interesting to converse with because we’ll be more exciting and engaging. And we’ll have more fun too.
Swedish writer Annika Thor put it perfectly when she wrote:
“A conversation is so much more than words — a conversation is eyes, smiles, the silences between the words.”
3. Yes, And…
This one comes from improvisational comedy. It’s the most fundamental technique of improv. The first exercise above will make you even better at this.
There’s no real setup here. Just incorporate this into any casual conversation.
This improvisational comedy fundamental works wonders. The idea is that you say “yes” to whatever the other person says and then add something to it.
Without “Yes, and,” improvisers would struggle to set up a scene that works. When we bring that into a real-life conversation, it can take it in new unexpected ways.
You don’t need to actually use the words “yes” and “and,” although you can. The idea is to accept what the other person says, and then build on it.
As introverts or quiet people, we can be very good at listening and accepting but stumble when it gets to the “build” part.
It’s not so much for political debates or recipes — unless you want your cake to go get really big and weird — it’s for natural, everyday conversation.
Just listen carefully to the other person and accept what they say with a verbal or non-verbal “yes” — then build on it. Stay with it and expand it rather than arguing against it or saying something related to it that doesn’t build directly on top.
For example, if someone is talking about a dress they like, instead of replying about some other clothes that you like, or giving your opinion, go with, “Yes, and...” Accept they like the clothes and build upon that. Suggest what it might go well with or what kind of event it would be good for or who it might impress. That’s more fun than giving an opinion or saying something else that it reminds you of.
Why this works
It makes the conversation more enjoyable. Both of you will have a great time together, and it helps build rapport. It keeps the conversation on their train of thought instead of yours — and people love that.
This isn’t working on your brain in the same way as the first two exercises. It’s working on a positive conversation style in the simplest possible way.
It works perfectly with exercise one because you’ve learned to open your mouth without thinking, which is fine in casual conversation. You can stop yourself at the last second if something really bad is going to come out. After the other person says something, say, “Yes, and…” Then you have to carry on and say something further. It’s a way to make sure we’re not too quiet when we don’t want to be, and an easy framework we can use to have fun conversations for the sake of them being fun.
To quote Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton:
“The true spirit of conversation consists in building on another man’s observation, not overturning it.”
It’s well-known advice that you should be listening in a conversation and not, in your own mind, trying to work out what to say. As a quiet person or introvert, we might worry we have nothing to say, and so we like to think before we speak to avoid being the cause of an awkward silence. So we may start to think too early while the other person is still talking — and miss what they say.
The great thing about the first two exercises is they give us the confidence to let go of that, and trust that we’ll be OK when it is our turn to speak. We do the exercises alone and then we’re stronger in conversation with a friend. We don’t have to remember any conversation tips or advice. The work is already done. It’s like going to the gym. You do the work alone and come out stronger.
“Yes, and…” means you have to listen because you need to know what you’re saying “yes” to. These are all great things to keep you from falling into the trap of thinking about why to say and not listening.
Quiet people can often be the small side of a one-sided conversation. It’s absolutely fine if you’re happy that way. There’s nothing wrong with introversion or quietness. But if you’d like to be more fluent in conversation and need some simple ways to get there, these are the most simple and effective I know.
Everyone is different. Some introverts won’t need this. Some extroverts will benefit. It’s all up to the individual, and there’s nothing wrong with being quiet if that’s how you choose to be. But if you want to up your conversation game, this is a simple and effective place to start.
The first two exercises work because of something called neuroplasticity. Our brains like to go down the route of well worn neural pathways. To do something else easily, we need to form a new pathway and then reinforce it, like treading down long grass to make a shortcut over a field. Then when that path is reinforced by repetition of the exercise, like the tall grass trodden down by a daily walk over it, things get easier.
The first exercise gets you trampling down the grass that would’ve put you off when it came to saying more. Once you do it a few times, the grass is flat and you can run down it easily. The second tramples down the grass that puts you off being more expressive or changing up your delivery. Trample it down in the exercise and make it an easier path when you’re in a conversation. This works well for public speaking preparation, too.
The more often you do the exercises, the more worn the path will be, and the easier and more naturally it’ll start to happen without you even noticing. When you take a chance with Yes, and… you’ll be fine because there’s no long grass to trip you up. You’ve already trampled it down.
We can get better at conversation by practice, but we can also get better quickly by drilling down into the common stumbling points for introverts and quiet people. Grab your phone and set that timer.
Once you’ve practised these things a few times, you’ll really start to see a difference.
- Learn to and reinforce neural pathways for saying more.
- Learn to and reinforce neural pathways of being more expressive.
- Use the improv comedy method of “Yes, and…” to have fun conversations easily.
Conversation will be easier and more intriguing. You’ll be more expressive and have more to say. It’ll be more fun — so get trampling that grass. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh once said, “Good conversation is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.”