Yeah! We all know them. Those disgusting people who can walk into any situation and seem to fit right into the conversation. They seem to feel at home with any crowd, and they can turn a bunch of strangers into friends in moments. In fact, they can do it in the time it takes you and me to munch a couple of dainty sandwiches, drink a glass of punch, and fade into the wall paper.
I guess it’s one of those things you are either born with, or brought up to do.
Or is it?
Like many things in life, being able to feel comfortable among strangers, make conversation on topics you know little about, and come out on the other end with new friends or business contacts is a skill that can be learned. While being born with certain genes or having been raised a certain way can surely help, you can learn how to get around those presumed limitations, and might even wind up being better at carrying it off than those who seem to have a head start on you.
While entire courses and training programs could be committed to turning the most insipid wallflower into a blossoming conversationalist and bon vivant, here are a few tips to help you ratchet up your “gift” of gab to a point where you too can join the crowd in the corner and discourse wittily on the subject at hand…usually.
1. Start with who you are. Don’t ever fake it. If you’re a gardener and the topic is rocket science, listen and learn. When the garden crowd drifts over, there’s YOUR chance to shine. You are simply not going to be the center of attention, or even a small fountain of wit and wisdom in every conversation.
2. Listen and learn. Since we mentioned it above, let’s explore this a little. First of all, you can often seem wiser than you are by keeping your mouth shut. While it’s shut, listen to that rocket scientist. Maybe the dry, technical details are over your head, but he may say something that makes sense to you and you can use the info in a conversation later. He may whet your interest in the topic, and what better source of reference than to ask the learned speaker what his, or her, advice would be on how to learn more.
3. Be patient. We have already established that you don’t want to jump in over your head and that you may benefit from the discourse anyway. However, no matter how elevated the topic, any conversation may often drift to other, more mundane topics, particularly if there are others, like yourself, who are in the dark on some highly technical issue.
4. Be curious. As mentioned above, asking a pertinent question or even professing to ignorance in hope of enlightenment will generate sparks of familiarity with the speakers. More than once, I have watched several experts practically compete with one another in their attempts to simplify and communicate a difficult subject to someone who seemed genuinely interested. Anyway, people like to have their egos stroked, and giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their command of the subject, or asking them for their opinion can really get the juices flowing. In the middle of all this, you learn more, create new friendships, and grow more comfortable within the group.
5. Admit mistakes and ignorance, take blame, laugh at yourself. One of the easiest ways to put others at ease is to admit your own ignorance. When you begin a statement or question by letting the others know that you might not know what you are talking about, they feel less “threatened” if that is a good word. It is a tension breaker in all directions when someone owns up to ignorance or error. Most people feel inclined to forgive those who can own up to their errors or lack of knowledge. They will also feel more comfortable if you can laugh at yourself.
6. Have a sense of humor. While many subjects are serious and do not allow a lot of leeway for humor, most people in a conversation are generally open to humor as long as it is not mocking or of the keystone cops variety. Of course, if the group is just cutting up, then cut up with them.
7. Educate yourself. The essence of feeling comfortable in a group is knowing that you are as knowledgeable as anybody else there. While you may regularly feel this way at work, where you are among peers, it may be quite different at a party or on a date where your counterpart may be from some other field or social group. Keeping up with the basics on current events in the fields of politics, economics, sports, science, health, and entertainment gives you toeholds on which to stand above the crowd in many conversational venues.
It also helps to keep up with popular books and movies of the moment. Even if you can only get around to actually reading or seeing one, and that one is NOT the one under discussion, you will at least have some concept of what many other popular books (or movies, or TV shows) of the moment are about, and you will possibly be able to ask rational questions which gives those who ARE familiar with the subject the opportunity to shine.
8. Prepare yourself. While education as mentioned above is a daily process, and might not have much depth, preparation can go much deeper. There are two ways that this can turn you into a conversational powerhouse.
** Become an expert on a particular subject or area. It could be a hobby, or you could just find something that interests you and might be of interest to others. For example, if you were an expert on precious stones, politics, antique coins, rare books, health, or physical fitness, there will be opportunities for you to discourse learnedly on your subject. If it is a subject that you feel deeply about, the depth of your feelings will often mold your presentation and manner of speech in such a way as to leave an impression on your listeners.
** Cram before the event if possible. If you are going to be among investors, learn some investing terminology. If as you read you have questions that the books or tapes don’t seem to answer, save those. You may have a chance to ask a genuine (or assumed) expert.
9. Encourage others to speak. If Jane is commenting on a subject and seems to reach an end, encourage her to go on. You can simply say, “tell me more”, or you can ask a question as mentioned above. If Jane is standing in the crowd and you know she is itching to say something, ask something like, “Jane! Didn’t I hear you talking about that earlier?” Of course, if you have no idea what Jane is thinking, shut up and leave her in peace.
10. Follow up. If the people are of interest to you, or you want to learn more about the subjects discussed, get names and numbers, ask for business cards, and carry some of your own. Call them up later to tell them how much you enjoyed the conversation, invite them to meet you for a lunch or cup of coffee, or send them a small gift that in some way relates to the experience.
A few months ago, I attended a presentation given by a local newspaper editorial writer. In the process of his presentation, I realized that many of his points were similar to, though not the same as, some points made in a book that I had enjoyed. I chatted with him after the presentation for just a couple of minutes, but managed to ask him if he had ever read the book. He admitted that he had not but seemed interested in it, even taking a moment to get a business card and write down the title of the book and the name of the author.
Later, when I was checking it out on Amazon, I realized that I could get a copy sent to him for a few dollars and did so. A few days later, he contacted me, thanking me for the book. He and I have communicated occasionally since then, and he has offered me encouragement and advice on my writing, and has even suggested I join a professional organization I had not even known existed.
One of the most important investments you can make in any “growth stock” is in the quantity and quality of your personal and business contacts AND your friends. Life is much easier for those who have invested wisely and widely in these. With a good list of friends and professional contacts, the next job is easier to find, the solution to the next problem is in your address book, the right contact is a phone call away, and life is a pleasant passage indeed.