Talk to Strangers- Part 1: The Approach

Chris Hadnagy’s book, Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking defines social engineering as any act of influencing a person to take an action that may or may not be in their best interest. This may include obtaining information, gaining access, or getting the target to take certain action. It may also include positive forms of communication such as with parents, therapists, children, spouses, and others. No matter what form it takes, the common element is communication.

Often during a social engineering engagement, we will find ourselves either face to face or on the phone with our target and we need to be quick on our feet. Often we will be required to play some sort of role – a UPS delivery guy, a potential employee, a waste management employee, etc. and we need to be able to play the role convincingly. Some may be blessed with these skills naturally, but for most, they are an acquired skill. If you are part of the later group, how do you perfect and fine tune a skill? Practice, of course!

The way to get better at communicating is to communicate. There has been quite a bit of research into what it means and what it takes to be an expert. Contrary to popular belief, anyone can become an expert at something regardless of their innate abilities. The key to success is not IQ or genes, the key to success appears to be practice. Lots of practice.

If a large part of social engineering is communication and we know that the way to become an expert at something is practice and repetition, the logical conclusion is that we need to spend a lot of time talking to people; people we don’t know. Talking to strangers is imperative to social engineering, but to many, the idea of talking to strangers ranges from awkward to downright frightening. In our November 2012 Newsletter, Volume 3, Issue 38, we taught you how to increase your perceived dominance. We mentioned many ways to go out and gain experience in public speaking and talking to people. In this newsletter, we’ll dive into some techniques you can use to approach and converse with strangers.

When speaking to strangers the two most important words you need to remember are “ego suspension”. The simple truth is, people care most about themselves, not you or anything you have to say so you must embrace this fact and use it to your advantage. Robin Dreeke, trainer and author of It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone says the key is “to get the other person’s brain to reward THEM for talking with YOU.” You want to activate the pleasure centers of their brains and cause them to release dopamine. If you can get the dopamine flowing, strangers will talk to you almost indefinitely. OK, cool plan, but how the heck do we get people’s dopamine flowing? Well, we’ve got to start talking to them first!

The hardest part about talking to strangers is the initial approach; getting them to engage you and not want to run for the hills. The first, and in my opinion most important technique, is introducing an artificial time constraint. People are much more likely to engage you if they have an out or if there is an immediately identifiable end to the interaction. When you approach a stranger, the first thing you should do is introduce the time constraint.

“Excuse me, I’m just on my way out, but can I ask you a quick question?”


“Sorry, I’m late for a birthday party, but could you help me for a second?”

Introducing the artificial constraint shows your target that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that your intention is just a quick interaction, and that you’re not some random weirdo that’s going to sit and talk their ear off. (Granted, you are a random weirdo that intends on occupying as much time as possible, but you don’t want them to think that.)

The next thing you want to do is elicit people’s natural desire to help and to assist. During this elicitation for help, it’s very useful to mention your husband, wife, or significant other. This immediately puts your target at ease and eliminates the thought of, “are they hitting on me?” You may also want to use a little self deprecation at this time for extra bonus points.

“Excuse me, I’m just on my way out, but I wanted to get my wife a nice present for our anniversary, but I am horrible at this stuff… she seems to have the same style as you. Can you help me pick out something for her that’s in style?”

You just introduced an artificial time constraint, elicited the target’s natural need to assist, used self deprecation, and made it clear that you’re not trying to hit on your target… all in 5 seconds. Also, by asking for their help, you made the introductory sentence about them.

The next thing you must do is manage your nonverbals. A large portion of our communication is done through nonverbals. Two different people can say the exact same words and those words can be construed in drastically different ways depending on the nonverbals. The number one most important thing to do is to smile. A smile will go a long way. The important thing to note about a smile is a fake smile is easily detectable. Our facial muscles actually move and react differently during a real smile and a fake smile. A great resource to master facial expressions is Dr. Paul Ekman’s F.A.C.E. Training. This training will show you the difference between real and fake expressions. Try it yourself in front of a mirror and see how a fake smile differs from a real smile.

In addition to a smile, you also want to slightly tilt your head while speaking and listening. This indicates comfort and that you’re comfortable in the situation. If you appear comfortable, so will your target. You want to also slightly angle your chin downward. Angling your chin upward indicates you think you are better than the person you’re conversing with. Remember, these motions should be very subtle and not extreme. They should be natural and unnoticeable.

Another very important nonverbal is the direction your body is facing. You want to keep your body bladed sideways toward your target during the initial interaction. Positioning your body so that you are facing them is a much more threatening stance to a stranger. A good place to talk to strangers is a bookstore. People in a bookstore are usually not in a hurry and are sort of just browsing around. It’s a wonderful place to engage people. A good example is finding someone looking at a book or magazine rack. While both of you are facing the rack, keep your body faced forward and just turn your head to engage.

“Excuse me, I’m already late for a meeting, but I was wondering if you could help me for a second? I’m new to this area and noticed you’re browsing hiking books also… there are so many choices, what books do you like?”

As your engagement goes on, you can turn your body slightly more toward them, but not too much. Keep your body bladed away from them in a nonthreatening way until you can tell you’ve established some level of comfortability and rapport.

As you’re speaking and engaging them, be mindful of your rate of speech. People who speak slowly and clearly are seen as much more credible than people who speak quickly. Often times, you will turn people off if you speak quickly. Speak methodically; not robotically.

We’ve got the approach down, now what? Well, you have three choices: you can either buy Robin’s book, “It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone”; you can sign up for our 5-Day Social Engineering for Penetration Testers class; or you can wait until next month’s newsletter, “Talking to Strangers – Part 2”. (OK, there is a fourth option, do all three!)

Written by: Eric “urbal” Maxwell


Social Engineering:The Art of Human Hacking by Chris Hadnagy. See 2nd Edition Social Engineering: The Science of Human Hacking by Chris Hadnagy.