A couple of months ago on Reddit, one of the redditors expressed a desire to learn to become a better conversationalist. Getting good at having conversations is a key part of becoming good at business, and improving your public speaking. Public speeches are, at their core, a conversation with a broader audience. So, here is my response to the question of how to become better at having conversations:
To be a good conversationalist, you need to be two things:
Be Interested In Others
How do you become interested? Well, it’s easy, you just ask questions, and learn to really listen to the answers. Many of us hear what is being spoken without really listening to what is being said. You have to quiet your preconceptions, set aside your judgments, stop worrying about what comes next, and engage fully with the people you’re speaking to.
Make good eye contact with them. Give them your full attention. Open up your body language. Stop waiting for your turn to speak, and worrying about what to say next, and just really take in what somebody else is saying. Give people the benefit of being really and truly heard. It happens very rarely, and it is an extraordinary and delightful experience when somebody really listens to what you have to say.
People are moved and flattered by being given an opportunity to talk about themselves, and have somebody be interested in hearing about it. It re-affirms their ego, and gives them a boost. It makes them feel less alone in the world, and the people who give them that gift of being heard are the ones who get remembered as great conversationalists.
Be an Interesting Person
Of course, at some point, you’ll have to talk as well. If your conversational partner is good at conversation, you may be called upon to talk about yourself. For those times when you have to speak, you need to be interesting.
How do you become interesting? You have to do interesting things. You must have interesting experiences. Read more books, of all sorts. There is lots of interesting information out there to be had, and this will make you a better and more interesting person in general.
Engage with sufficient popular culture (TV, Music, Movies, Sports) that you can speak on those subjects with some degree of knowledge. This doesn’t mean you have to watch TV all the time, spend all your time in theaters, attend every home game, or listen to scads of tunes. But you should have at least enough passing knowledge that you can pass muster when those subjects might arise.
Do stuff. Get out of the house, and into the world, and try new things. Join a club or book group. Take some classes. Pick up a hobby. Put yourself in social situations. Start saying “yes” to things. Get yourself some stories to tell. Human beings have a rich oral tradition, and we are drawn to a good story.
And a good story needs a good storyteller. When the conversation calls for the interjection of a good story, you need to step up to the plate and swing for the rafters. Be detailed, but not too verbose. Be energetic and open. Let the story build, as a good joke would build, to the punch-line. This bit takes practice, but not so much that it should scare you away. Anybody can be a good storyteller. Especially with sufficient enthusiasm.
As you become more interesting, remember that first you need to be interested. Being interested becomes ever so much more important than being interesting. When you are able to strike the ideal balance of both, you will gain a reputation as a great conversationalist.
Finally, Practice well. Have conversations with strangers while waiting in line places. Start with the weather, and move on from there. If you’re not getting good responses, try again with somebody else elsewhere.
Most people are wandering around, scared to death of everybody else. Make eye contact with people, smile, and be open to hearing what they have to say. Include other people in the conversation. As you get better, you can even get a whole group of complete strangers talking cordially with one another.
How Does All of This Apply To Speaking?
When you’re in front of an audience, both of these admonitions, and all of this advice applies equally. Be interested in who your audience is, and what they need. And make an effort to be interesting for your audience. Be honest, be real, and be engaging. That will make you a better conversationalist, a better speaker, and a generally better person.