The background story
In November 2012, I got a promotion after 7 months of working in a digital marketing agency. I joined the agency 7 months prior to my promotion and I worked super hard to get familiar with my responsibilities and to get into a more senior role.
My role in the marketing agency was setting up and managing advertising campaigns on search engines and on social media networks. However, I really wanted to move to a more strategic role where I would be the first point of contact for my clients and I would be responsible for the strategic direction of my accounts, as well as forecasting and reporting.
I decided to have a conversation with my manager, and the conversation went something like that:
Me: “I would like to move to account management”
Manager: “OK. An account manager should be talkative and build rapport and good relationships with their clients. You tend to be quiet in the meetings. If you show me that you can build trust and participate more in conversations by bringing value, then I promise you, you will be moved to account management.”
My manager was right. I was quiet.
I was a quiet person in general. I did not have the confidence or the experience to bring something more to the meetings than what I was seeing as a result of the campaigns I was running.
I also felt that if I wanted to say anything or add anything to a conversation, someone else from my team would say it first, leaving me with nothing to contribute.
Not to mention the times that I wanted to add to a conversation but I was too shy to do so and was constantly debating with myself as to if I should. By the time I decided to voice the “added value”, the conversation had moved on.
Does any of the above sound familiar?
Amongst other things, my manager at the time gave me the following tip:
“Build relationships with the senior management within the company. Get to know them but most importantly GET THEM TO KNOW YOU”
The actions that followed
I heard the feedback loud and clear. As I do with anything new I want to learn, I treated the improvement of my interpersonal skills the same way. I love reading and learning through books, so my first thought was to look for a book that could potentially help me.
That first afternoon I spent searching for books and reading reviews. Finally, I came across a book called How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie. When the book arrived, I read it two times to take in everything that was in it and literally made a plan on how I could use the tips provided.
It’s been such a long time since I read it but I can still remember the things that helped me the most and what I did to become a better conversationalist. I did get the promotion 8 months later. What is more, becoming a better conversationalist also helped my social life in general.
The tips that stuck with me are the following:
Be genuinely interested in the person.
I could never think of what I could ask a person to make them open up to me in order to build rapport. But I gave it a go, I started with some of the following questions and when I got to know a person better I would adjust my questions accordingly:
- How was your weekend?
- Where are you from originally?
- When did you come to London and how do you find living here?
- How did you meet your partner? — Yes, I was really and am really asking this question. You have no idea how both men and women love talking about their partners. I have asked clients that question and I have asked senior managers that question. They all were extremely excited to share.
- What do you do outside of work?
- What is your favourite place you have travelled to so far?
Share something about yourself.
No one feels comfortable sharing something about themselves with a complete stranger, so you need to make them feel comfortable about doing it. No one would tell me actually what they did at the weekend when I was asking how their weekend was. The initial answer was always “not bad” or “it was good”. In order to change that, I became elaborate in my answers to their question of how my weekend was. Example:
Me: “How was your weekend?”
Client: “Not bad. How was yours?”
Me: “It was great. I watched the new Tarantino movie that came out at the theatres on Saturday and I went hiking near Brighton on Sunday”
Client: “Oh, OK” — surprised with my elaborate answer!
Me: “How was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting?”
Client: “Haha. It was good. My wife and I have been thinking of going to Thailand for a long time, so we booked tickets to go there in January.”
Me: “That sounds lovely. I heard Thailand is beautiful. I’ve never been myself”
When the person you are conversating with learns something about you, it becomes easier for them to share something about themselves. I also feel that the way you answer a question you ask sets the standard for the answers you expect to hear. And this is how you start building rapport.
I used this tactic on literally everyone, my clients, the senior managers in the company, my manager (because why not), my colleagues, and the new people I was meeting.
I did not practice the tips only on my clients, I applied them on all aspects of my life. The more I practiced, the better I turned out to be.
Give sincere compliments.
I found that a nice and sincere compliment goes a long way and can become a great conversation starter, as long as it is sincere. I cannot stress this enough. Compliments made for the sake of making compliments do not lead anywhere and are dead obvious because there is no continuity. However, sincere compliments can help you win the person you give compliments to.
In order to practice this, I would say something nice about a piece of accessory or a piece of clothing to anyone, even to a stranger that I had just seen in a coffee shop, or to the waiter that serves me, or to a dear friend. I would just make it a habit. Slowly, I was noticing things that could turn into a short or a long conversation.
First, listen, and then share.
At the beginning of this process, I was the one asking the questions and showing interest while I was working on the stories I would share. In a short period of time, I turned from being a quiet person in a group of people to a person that would also share stories, and most of the time my stories would be interesting. I made stories of things such as my bus ride to work or a conversation I had with the person that served me my coffee or even how the walk was from place A to place B.
I would not always get the response I wanted, but I would make the point of saying and contributing until it became second nature. I also joined various activities in order to create experiences that I could use in stories.
Do you remember the scene from Friends when Ross was sitting with his cousin on his couch and he was thinking “Say something, say something, say something. It is better to say something than not to say anything”? I know that what came from his mouth was inappropriate but I convinced myself that it is always better to say anything than sitting quietly in meetings! There is always the fear of saying something inappropriate but that did not cross my mind that much.
Initially, I would just ensure that the person talking knows that I am actively listening and knows that I am there too. So, I would let words such as yeah, aha, ok come out. This allowed me to draw the attention of the person talking every now and then. I wanted them to make eye contact with me too when they were talking.
Additionally, I noticed that my manager and in general English people would talk about the weather. So, I started talking about the weather too. I became super knowledgeable about weather stuff at some point until I found better subjects to bring up in conversations.
Getting more experience at work.
In order to improve the business-related value in client meetings, I asked and was allowed to have a couple of slides that I would discuss or lead in meetings. In addition, I spent some time, going deep into the insights of the campaigns and I was reading industry-related articles, dropping insights from what I was learning. Slowly those insights I was dropping elevated me in the eyes of the clients who provided stellar feedback on my performance. As a result, I became visible in the eyes of the senior management and got the promotion I so much wanted in less than a year.
If you meet me, you will never believe that I was shy. Even people that had known me before I became bubbly cannot remember the time that my communication skills were poor.
My final advice if you want to improve your communication skills is to watch what the most popular people around you do and follow their lead with your personal spin on it. Some things you try will work and some will not. They are all lessons that will lead you to where you want to go. I remember watching closely how my manager was building rapport with clients and the senior management and I used some of his techniques to do the same. However, all of his techniques came down to sharing stories, being interested in the other person, and adding value in business conversations.
When I lived in London, I was participating in many meetup groups. My goal was to practice what I was learning with as many new people as possible so I could become more sociable and a good conversationalist. It was hard and uncomfortable but it was worth it.
How to Win Friends and Influence People changed my life. But it changed my life because I wanted to change it. So, if you are determined to become a better conversationalist in order to get a promotion and/or win people over, definitely follow the pieces of wisdom in this article.