Cynthia McFadden, coanchor of ABC's Nightline, has broken the ice with her fair share of strangers: from Madonna and Cher to the last five U.S. presidents. Here are a few guidelines she's picked up along the way:
- A compliment is always a great opener. If you say something nice—about a tie, a pair of shoes, a haircut—people will usually respond positively. Insincerity is easily detected, so make sure you mean it. Or approach someone with a benign question, such as "What are you reading?" or "Where are you from?" Whatever you do, don't begin with a lecture about yourself.
- Smile and make eye contact. "We're much more instinctive than we realize," McFadden says. "If someone's smiling and nodding her head, we immediately feel more at ease."
- If you find out whom you're going to be meeting, do a bit of research. Knowing a little about whom you're talking to and what their interests are makes it much easier to begin a conversation. If you don't have the advantage of a background check, with a little prodding, people are usually very happy to tell you about their childhood, their work, or their family.
- Don't fear silence. "Sometimes, in a nervous burst of energy, we find ourselves talking too much," says McFadden. "But one of the things you learn as an interviewer is not to be afraid of pauses, especially when you're talking to someone you don't know. Give them a chance to respond."
- Stay attuned to the other person's signals. If they offer only terse replies or avoid eye contact, accept that the conversation isn't happening and let go. Don't take it personally; sometimes people just don't feel like talking.