“Just ask questions—everyone loves talking about themselves.”
It’s advice you’ve probably heard over and over again for meeting new people. And it is great advice, because most people really do enjoy talking about themselves.
But there are also people—like me—who don’t love it so much. Given the choice, I’d always choose to be on the asking side of the question. When it’s turned around on me, I tend to clam up, spout off the briefest answer possible, and offer up a new question to move the spotlight back to the other person.
But that can be a big detriment to your career. You can’t successfully interview for a job or network with a new contact if you keep trying to direct the conversation to the other person—and don’t let him or her learn anything about you.
There’s no getting around it: You have to learn to talk about yourself. So here are a few strategies to make it a little easier.
Challenge #1: You Don’t Have Anything to Contribute to the Conversation
Try This: Drive the Conversation to Your Interests
Whatever your personality type, it’s easier to talk about yourself when you’re talking about things that actually interest you. If you’re a complete bookworm and haven’t seen a movie in years, you’re not going to have much to say if someone asks you what you thought of the new Steve Jobs film.
To make sure you land on the right topics, take control of the conversation and drive it toward things you actually want to talk about.
Say you’re passionate about volunteer work in your community. At a networking event, you can ask new contacts about where they work and if their organizations are involved with any nonprofits in the area. After they answer and the conversation moves back to you, you’ll have the perfect opening to talk about your recent volunteer projects.
You may not be able to control every part of every conversation (an interview, for example, will be largely driven by the hiring manager)—but you always have the opportunity to ask questions. Use those questions wisely, and you’ll land on a topic that you’re excited to talk about.
Challenge #2: You’re Worried About How People Will React to What You Say
Try This: Practice With a Test Panel
Telling a story about yourself to a new contact or interviewer can be nerve-wracking, because you don’t know how the other person will react. Will she nod in appreciation or glare at you condescendingly? Will the story hit all the right notes or fall completely flat?
That unknown can tempt you to drive the conversation away from yourself with a one-word answer, rather than regaling the person with your anecdote.
So, practice. Tell your stories in conversation with your friends or family—people you already feel comfortable talking to. See how they react. If you get a hearty laugh and follow-up questions that clearly express interest, you can take that as a sign that you have a home-run story. And that can be the boost of confidence you need to share it with someone new, instead of deflecting the conversation back to him or her.
Challenge #3: Talking About Yourself Seems Prideful
Try This: Use Someone Else’s Perspective
Talking about yourself can been uncomfortably self-promotional. You feel like you’re boasting—and maybe that doesn’t come naturally to you.
So, think about how other people would describe you. Consider the feedback your colleagues have given you or recommendations you’ve received on LinkedIn. Then, use those words to drive the conversation, rather than your own.
For example, maybe during an interview, the hiring manager asks you why you’d be a good fit for an editorial role, when much of your experience is in management. On one hand, you could quickly mutter, “Oh, I’ve just always liked writing and editing”—and wait to move on to the next question.
Instead, think about how others have described you. You could say, for example, “One of my college professors always said I had a natural talent for writing. Then, in my most recent role as a manager, my boss noticed that my team consistently turned in near-perfect reports, because I took the time to proof them. She said I had a natural talent for words and helped me get involved in writing the company newsletter and team training documentation, so I could continue honing that skill.”
Using the words and recommendations of others almost makes it seem like you’re not talking about yourself at all.
Of course, this last tip is perhaps the most important: To really get comfortable talking about yourself, you have to practice. The more you push yourself, the easier it will get to do—and that will only lead to more meaningful relationships.