You probably shy away from some people on social occasions. Their conversations are tedious. You groan inwardly when they approach for you know that they are unremittingly dull company. Equally you may be fortunate enough to know some brilliant conversationalists who can enliven any discussion and who are excellent company whatever the circumstances. In what category would other people place you? How can you improve your conversational skills to become a welcome sight at every party and social event you attend? Here are some pointers that might help.
Most people prefer to talk about themselves rather than hear about you, so asking questions is a great way to start and to refresh conversations. If you meet someone for the first time, start by asking simple, non-threatening questions about them, what they do, where they live etc. If you know someone moderately well then you should be aware of some of their interests so simple questions about those are good ways to start. As you get to know people better you can ask more searching and interesting questions. For example, ‘What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced in your life?’ or, ‘What is your greatest ambition?’
In a group similar considerations apply. You should generally start new conversations by throwing out questions rather than making statements or talking about things you have done. By asking questions you draw other people in and engage them. It is said that small minds talk about people, moderate minds talk about events and great minds talk about ideas. By all means start the conversation with some small talk but once it is going be prepared to introduce some questions relating to issues and ideas. We will discuss where to get the ideas shortly. Obviously you have to judge the nature of the group first so it is important to follow the second rule.
Great conversationalists are great listeners. Whether you are with one person or a group listen attentively. People like good listeners – wouldn’t you rather speak with someone who was interested in what you had to say rather than someone who looked bored and indifferent? Also, when you listen you learn. When you are speaking you are not learning anything new. Make a conscious effort to focus on what people say. Show that you are interested by asking questions that support and develop the conversation; ‘What do you mean exactly?’, ‘What happened next?’, ‘How did you feel about that?’
As you listen in a group, observe how people are reacting to the conversation. Are they engaged or ready for a change of topic? Is it time to move up from small talk to something more serious or time to lighten the mood with some humour? By listening and observing you can time your contribution to bolster the current conversation or move it forward to something new and interesting.
Pay compliments whenever you sincerely can. If someone looks smart or has lost weight or has a stylish new haircut then show that you have noticed by giving a genuine compliment. ‘That colour really suits you.’ ‘You are looking very trim today.’ If they tell you about some achievement - say at work or by one of their children then congratulate them. As a matter of general courtesy and good manners you should always thank and compliment your host. Tell them what a great success the event is and how much you are enjoying it. Pick on some detail that they have chosen for the occasion that you like and tell them how well it has worked or how much you like it.
Keep up to date on topical issues
It is important to keep abreast of key current issues and topics in the news, entertainment, sports and politics. You should be ready to comment with questions, ideas, facts and opinions on the issues that other people are interested in. So see a few of the latest movies, read some of the most popular fiction and non-fiction, read the newspapers, watch the news, keep up with some major sports stories and watch some TV – but not too much. You do not need to slavishly follow every Soap but if someone asks you what are your favourite TV programmes then you should be able to list some popular and serious programmes and justify what it is you like about them.
When discussing serious topics be prepared to oppose the conventional view and to take a rather provocative stance – even for the sake of doing so. This will lead to a more interesting conversation than if you just agree with what is said. For example if everyone is against some political leader, then come to their defence with examples of strengths or achievements. Make your points with conviction, evidence and, if possible, humour. But in a social environment be careful not to become belligerent or cantankerous. In general it is best to avoid really sensitive or controversial topics especially if they risk offending people’s personal feelings.
There is a place for serious discussion and there is a place for the light-hearted, so be ready to contribute in either environment. Witty comments tend to be spontaneous, clever and unexpected so being witty is not an easy skill to develop but there are some things you can do. Observe witty people in action and see how they contribute. Be bold enough to add your comments and witticisms and carefully watch reactions to see whether you are hitting the right note. Have a stock of funny stories. Do not force them into the conversation but have them ready when you get the cue or when there is a lull. Personal anecdotes relating to unusual experiences and misfortunes that befell you often go down well. Develop and practice some self-deprecating stories. Jokes, quotes and other people’s witty remarks can also be used sparingly and with acknowledgement. But beware of smutty or offensive stories in mixed company. Laugh at other people’s funny stories, even if you have heard them before, but never give away someone else’s punch line.
Say what you have to say with clarity and enthusiasm. Many people mumble their words, or rush through them or whisper so quietly that you have to strain to hear them. Good conversationalists are clear, articulate and easy to understand. They use interesting metaphors and visual images. Keep your sentences short and to the point. Don’t hog the floor. When you have made your point pass the conversation on by letting others speak. If there is a pause then draw someone in with a question.
Be yourself, be natural and don’t try to be anything that you are not. Approach the situation with a positive attitude and tell yourself that you are going to have a good time and meet some interesting people. Relax, smile and enjoy the occasion. People prefer to mix with the happy and good-natured rather than the grumpy and miserable. By all means have a couple of drinks but not too many or you risk undoing all your good work!
This article is based on a chapter in How to be a Brilliant Thinker by Paul Sloane published by Kogan Page.
Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.