“So … what do you do?”

I get asked this question everywhere I go. It is the first thing on the agenda when meeting new people, whether it’s your neighbors at a garage sale or recruiters at an event. Answering this question is tricky. Though no one says it so directly, it is likely that people will scrutinize and judge your response. This question carries so much weight that it is even considered the life’s most dangerous question, according to The Minimalists. So, how do we get it right? How can we fascinate people in just a few seconds?

I never knew how to respond but I always knew how not to. I’ve realized that most people have a limited way of answering this question. If you observe closely, people sound like a recorded resume. Press “play” and they will spew out their job titles and all their projects and accomplishments. They assume that being impressive means talking technical. But no one likes a robot. If you bombard people with details, you lose them.

When it comes to the topic of effective speaking, there are countless self-help books and YouTube videos on how to become more charismatic and how to be more memorable. Some are convinced that we must maintain eye contact and talk slowly; others maintain that we must turn anxiety into excitement. This is all great advice — but there’s one other factor that is often overlooked. My own view is that of James Whittaker, a distinguished engineer from Microsoft: that storytelling is, in fact, the secret to turning this dreadful question into a moment of fascination.

In fact, a study from Princeton University finds that stories synchronize our brains — the same brain regions activate in both the speaker and listener when we tell a story. Stories are powerful and memorable because we can relate to them.                                              

Here’s how Whittaker put storytelling into practice. Whittaker met Bill Gates for the first time at a conference full of overachievers. Desperate to get a moment with Gates, a guy from Cornell boasted about his expertise in machine-learning and another guy from Stanford talked big about computer vision. But their rhetoric worked against them. Whittaker examined their interactions only to find that Gates was bored out of his mind.

So what did Whittaker do differently so that one of the world’s most influential people held on to his hand and didn’t let go?

“Mr. Gates, I test software, because a computer on every desk and in every home that doesn’t work is no contribution to humanity, sir,” Whittaker said. How brilliant. Not only did he tell a story, he actually used Gates’s own story to connect with him. “A computer on every desk and in every home” was Microsoft’s motto at the time.

So if we love stories, why don’t we tell more of them? It is because we tend to dismiss small talk as an opportunity to connect. Yes, we’ve all been there. The uncomfortable silences in elevators and waiting rooms, taking out cell phones to avoid eye contact.

Talking to strangers is uncomfortable. As Laurie Helgoe, author of “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength,” writes in her book, “We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people.”

Small talk is also often looked down upon. A friend wrote in my high school yearbook, “Small talk is for small people, and that stuff is not for you.” In making this comment, he meant that I’m a big and imaginative person who shouldn’t settle for less. But what he also implied here is that small talk is insignificant.

But here’s what people may overlook: All conversations and relationships do start small, and taking these moments to share stories is where fascinating and boring people differ.

By no means am I suggesting you to be someone you’re not. You don’t have to change who you are. In fact, “You have to become more of who you are,” says Sally Hogshead, creator of Fascination Personality test. We are all born fascinating — we just have to unlearn how to be boring.

Break out of your scripted responses. Break out of your already prepared conversations. Start out your next presentation with a story. Remind people in the elevator about the first time you got stuck in one. Ask the person standing next to you in Starbucks line what their favorite drink is and why. People want to connect. And who knows? From these interactions, you might capture someone’s attention who could be your next employer, best friend or even the love of your life. (I certainly did.)

So, what do you do? Well I eat, I work out (occasionally) and I type really loudly on keyboards. And I also write stories about how people can become more fascinating. What is your story?

Gina Choe can be reached at ginachoe@umich.edu.

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