How to Talk to a Nobel Laureate
Social anxiety is a common problem. As hard as it can be to talk to people in general, the struggle is amplified in professional situations where the ability to have conversations with strangers is necessary for your career advancement. I recently tackled this issue head-on when a good friend and I let a game of truth-or-dare get out of hand on the final night of a scientific conference.
The dare: talk to a Nobel laureate. I accepted immediately then upped the ante myself, saying, “I will even touch one.” The truth is, I was slightly delirious with sleep deprivation, and I didn’t think we’d be able to find a Nobel laureate with whom I could complete the dare. But ten minutes later, I was on my way to greet Nobel prize winner [name redacted to protect the innocent], and forty minutes later I returned to my table, triumphant, to choruses of, “How did you do that?”
So if you ever find yourself in a similar situation (dare or not), here is my definitive guide for talking to Nobel laureates, or other important people.
1. Find your common ground. Everyone has some common ground with everyone, and that can be the seed for your conversation. If you are at a scientific conference, you have science in common. If you are complete strangers, maybe you both love kittens (who doesn’t?). The moment I accepted the dare and identified the laureate, I pulled out my phone and scanned his Wikipedia page, discovering that we both made early-career changes from math and physics fields to biology. The more specific the common ground you find, the more interesting your conversation will be.
2. Walk up and say hello. Do it with a smile, and make eye contact. (If you also need to touch the person for the purposes of a dare, stick your hand out for a handshake at this point. Most people will not refuse a handshake out of social politeness. Touching Nobel laureates in other places is not recommended.) Your opening line does not need to be brilliant, just honest. Mine was, “Hi. I wanted to come over and meet you.” A Nobel laureate, or any important scientist or business person, will not think twice about the fact that you already know who they are. Introduce yourself briefly, and quickly bring up your common ground.
3. Ask a leading question. The very best questions will be about the person you’re talking to, and will reference the common ground you share. I said, “I heard that you changed fields early on in your career. I did the same, and I’ve been wondering if you’ve found that change to be an asset or a liability over the years.” This shows specificity (I’ve done my homework and know what I’m talking about), interest (I am genuinely interested because this is relevant to me), and gives your laureate a chance to talk about himself, something that most people love to do.
4. Listen attentively. I’m talking about active listening here. Making eye contact, nodding your head, making sounds like “yes” and “uh huh” and “that’s interesting” periodically. This is not the kind of listening you do with your family when you’re trying to answer emails while they talk at you. Be engaged, and ask follow up questions if necessary. Contribute to the conversation, but keep it short. If your laureate wants more information, they will ask. Being brief will prevent you from slipping into a monologue about yourself.
5. Treat the laureate like a respected human. This goes for everyone you ever talk to, regardless of their status. Try to forget that you are talking to an Important Person. Don’t act weird, like teenage-you meeting your favorite actor and then melting down in the hallway because, “He shook my hand. You guys, did you see that? I’m never washing this hand again.” And then accosting him as he walked out of the bathroom for just one more signature. (My apologies, Viggo Mortensen…) Make a human connection. We’re all just people.
6. Make a graceful and timely exit. Pay attention to your conversation partner. Do they keep looking over your shoulder or at their watch or phone? Do they answer your questions monosyllabically? Are they avoiding your eye contact? These are all clues that this person does not want to talk to you. Don’t be hurt, and don’t try to force them to talk to you (creepy guys on the subway, I’m looking at you). End your conversation swiftly and walk away. I like, “Thanks for taking the time to talk to me,” as a closer. Your quick exit will be appreciated and will leave your laureate with more positive feelings about your exchange than if you had overstayed your welcome.
Truth time: Talking to strangers is hard and scary, but it is a life skill we all need to build. These steps work equally well whether you are trying to talk to someone sitting next to you on the train or the CEO of your company. Start practicing in low-stakes situations, and work your way up. Don’t let the fear of the other person not wanting to talk to you stop you from trying. A lot of people won’t want to talk to you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have short, meaningful interactions with them and build your confidence for when it really matters.