By Leo Babauta
Let’s face it: most of us aren’t amazing social ninjas, good at working any social situation, let alone comfortable telling a captivating story in front of a crowd.
It would be great if there were a manual that taught us the key social skills for being good at parties, talking to strangers, making amazing friendships.
Luckily for us losers, my friend Tynan has written a new book, Superhuman Social Skills, and I honestly think it’s fantastic. I know I’m biased, but after reading it I believe it’s something pretty much every human being should read (and it’s free for the Kindle today). We’re not given a manual for learning social skills, and so we face so many problems because of it, from social anxiety to loneliness.
A bit of background on Tynan: he was a social loser into adulthood (seriously — ask to see his “color guard” photos). Then he got into the pickup artist community (I know, they often sound like scumbags, but he isn’t one) and honed his social skills to get better at talking to women. What resulted from that, plus traveling the world and meeting lots of people, is that he has a good number of really good friends (I’m the best one of them, but there are other good ones too), and is comfortable in lots of social situations.
I consider myself socially awkward, and reading his book gave me a sense of excitement that I could improve. I’ve recommended the book to my kids who are entering adulthood, because I think it’ll give them a big boost. But except for the most socially skilled of my friends, I think everyone I know should read this book.
I asked Tynan if I could interview him about some of the key social skills he talks about, including the one that I find most fascinating and useful — storytelling.
Leo: Who do you think needs help with social skills?
Tynan: I think we can all improve our social skills in one way or another. For some people it might be a case of diminishing returns, but I don’t think that’s true of most.
Because social skills aren’t taught through normal avenues of learning like school or through peers, most people don’t actively work on improving them. That means that a lot of us have plenty room for improvement that can be capitalized on through proactive learning.
Leo: Why is this such a difficult problem to solve?
Tynan: Social skills feel more like integral parts of us than external skills like playing the piano. So there’s a lot of ego involved. To really improve them often involves a level of humility that can be uncomfortable.
Another effect of this discomfort is that people don’t talk about social skills. If you and I were both learning to program, we would talk about our challenges and share learning resources. But with social skills, you don’t really see much of that.
Leo: How did you solve it? What changes did you see in your life as a result?
Tynan: The big first step for me was becoming involved in the pickup community. I was an introverted nerd who was completely clueless with women, and that led to me humbling myself and building up my social skills from the ground up.
I was focused on dating, but may have benefited even more in other areas, from making friends to interacting with my family. My experience with pickup helped me see social skills as something that could be improved upon, and I began to look at things like making friends, telling stories, and interacting with my friend group through a similarly analytical lens.
Leo: There are a ton of tips in your book — where should someone start?
Tynan: I think it really varies from person to person. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and the distribution of them seems to be fairly uniform. But for someone who doesn’t have a good idea of what his weaknesses are, I’d suggest either working on storytelling or on identifying his annoying habits. Storytelling is a universal skill that can have a huge impact on others, and annoying habits are often the difference between a friendship being created or not.
Leo: Without giving away the book, can you share some top tips for becoming a better storyteller?
Tynan: I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who makes their stories too short. I’ve met a lot who make their stories way too long. It’s fun to tell a story, so we all have a tendency to bask in that and draw it out as long as possible. Really, though, it’s better to give people the juicy bits of a story and then move on to something else. They’ll always ask if they want more information.
Give a minimum of introduction, build up the tension, and then hit them with the payoff of the story. Remember that if you make your stories too long, either by going on tangents, repeating yourself, or adding too much detail, people won’t want to hear more stories in the future because they’ll worry that you won’t stop talking.
On the other hand, if you always keep your stories short and sweet, you’ll be asked to tell more of them.
Leo: What are some common annoying habits that people often have, that maybe they aren’t aware of? How does someone create awareness of their annoying habits?
Tynan: I think a lot of the most common annoying habits are stem from not understanding the natural flow of conversation. I’m always surprised at how many people dominate conversations without receiving any sort of indication that the other party is happy to just sit and listen passively. As a general rule of thumb, you should be prepared to fill in any dead spot in the conversation, but should allow the other person to talk as much as they want to. A conversation between two socially savvy people will almost always hover at a one-to-one ratio of each party speaking.
Leo: Why do you think storytelling is such a key skill for most of us social losers?
Tynan: Stories are the means by which we communicate our experiences, and our experiences have shaped us into who we are today. So by telling stories, you’re effectively communicating who you are as a person, and how you became that way. To really become good friends with someone, you can’t just share facts or opinions– you have to share yourself, and stories are how you do that.
Leo: If you sucked at telling stories, how would you train to get good at it? Is there a way you could practice with friends, or strangers? How can you get good feedback and improve quickly?
Tynan: Just like anything, it’s all about getting in the repetitions. The first key is to realize that a story doesn’t have to be an epic tale that could eventually become a movie– it just has to be something that happened to you.
Think about standup comedians– they tell humorous stories all the time, but the content itself isn’t all that amazing. The value is in the delivery. So tell your friends and family things that happened to you. Anything that was funny or interesting or unexpected.
And if you can’t think of anything like that, just tell people boring things that happened to you, and try to make them interesting. I used to tell people about grocery shopping just to practice telling stories.
You’re already getting good feedback on your stories, but you’re probably ignoring it. Social etiquette means that all negative feedback is delivered in shades of gray. No one will tell you that your story sucks, but they will gently try to change the topic, butt in, or show signs of disinterest like breaking eye contact or shifting body language.
Leo: You talked about making a list of your favorite stories from A-Z (note to reader: read the book for more on this technique) … what if you don’t think you have any good stories? Is this a sign that you need to live life differently?
Tynan: I think it would be hard to live twenty or more years and not have at least twenty-six interesting experiences that could be turned into stories. Almost impossible, really. If you don’t think that you have interesting stories, you probably just don’t understand what makes an interesting story. It’s 20% content, 80% delivery.
On the other hand, once you’re nailing the delivery every time, the biggest room for improvement comes from the content. I’ve found the content for my best stories come from travel and/or going outside of my comfort zone, which are two things anyone can do.
Leo: How can you tell if your story isn’t doing well? It seems like a lot of people tell boring stories, thinking that the other person is completely interested, unaware that they’re droning on. And if you do notice, what can you do? Also … how do you balance telling a good story with listening and not talking too much?
Tynan: If your story is really good, people will be looking you directly in the eyes, showing emotion, and asking questions or saying things like, “No way!”. If you don’t see those signs, you should assume that the other person isn’t interested. That might not be true, but it’s far better to err on the side of assuming disinterest.
There’s an easy test you can employ if you think someone may possibly not be interested: just stop the story. Look for any sort of distraction, and take it. Or just say, “Anyway– it’s a long story.”
If they want the story to end, you’ve just given them what they want. If they want to hear the rest of the story, they will ask you to continue 100% of the time. This technique works every single time and makes you a very pleasant person to talk to.
Your stories should be short and modular. No epic tales with a million tangents and side-stories, just short concentrated stories. Tell one, give the other person an opportunity to tell one of their own, change the topic, or ask a question, and if they don’t take it, continue on to another one.
As a general rule, you want to be as flexible as possible, but to allow the other person to be inflexible. So if they want to talk 100% of the time or 0% of the time, you oblige them and make it as comfortable as possible.
Leo: Let’s say you walk into a party, or a bar … how do you get to the point where you can start telling one of your stories to strangers? I always feel awkward when I enter a place, and don’t know how to approach a group or a stranger and just start talking.
Tynan: A good combination is a question coupled with a related story. For example, let’s say you’re at your friend Bob’s party. You could ask people how they know Bob, which is an easy icebreaker for anyone, and then follow it up with a great story about how the two of you met. If they go into their own great story after the question, you don’t necessarily have to tell yours, but if they give a really terse response like, “Oh, we met at work”, you’re armed with a good story that’s ready to go.
Almost everyone feels awkward in these situations, but most are also hoping to have good conversations and meet people. By practicing social skills and preparing for situations like this, you’ll actually be one of the least nervous ones.
Leo: How do you go from telling stories to making a real connection and making a friend?
Tynan: To have a friendship you need shared experiences and mutual understanding. Stories are one third of that equation– they help your new friend understand you. To understand them, you need to be a good listener. Even if they’re telling a really bad story, think of it as an opportunity to get to know them, faults and all.
Tell stories that encapsulate a wide range of your experience as a human, and encourage the other person to do the same. That’s how you fill the blank canvas in your mind with data points to try to understand them.
Stories alone can’t create a friendship, but they’re the major tool we use to get to know each other, and that’s a major component of friendship. Once you get to know each other, spend time together and create your own stories together. Those shared experiences bind people together and create the fodder for stories that you can tell to other people down the road.