Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking.
Most think the fear of public speaking only refers to speeches and presentations; yet one of the most common fears among adults is engaging in meaningful conversation with strangers.
I hear it all the time, “What do I say?”
I shouldn’t be surprised anymore, yet I could be walking the halls of Congress, on a Hollywood sound stage, standing to the side of a bustling Parisian restaurant kitchen, or just walking along Sag Harbor’s Main Street, and someone will pull me aside pleading, “I’ve got this event/party/meeting/conference/board meeting/road show/presentation coming up and they expect me to talk to all these people and sound interesting; I just don’t know what to say!”
Truth is, it’s easy talking to friends about ourselves, but engaging in a meaningful conversation with someone unfamiliar can be terrifying, and you are not alone.
There’s an art to becoming a good conversationalist, and if you practice the following rules and tips, you will never suffer from glossophobia again.
Conversation Rule #1 – Stick to the Last 24 Hours.
Immediately find a common interest based on current events, food, geography, work, or family based on something you experienced or observed over the last 24 hours.
“I see it’s raining again in the south. How has this winter treated you?”
“My son, Connor, was telling me about Carmelo Anthony joining the New York Knicks. What sports do you follow?”
“A friend just sent me a newspaper article on the best doughnut shops in Boston. Where is your favorite breakfast place?”
“My teenage daughter, Molly, loves Justin Bieber and says his fame is explosive. What do you think is the secret for young people getting famous so fast?”
“My client called me from London this morning and said royal wedding souvenirs are flying off the shelves. Why do you think people are so interested in the royals?”
Conversation Rule #2 – Ask Open Ended (OE), not Closed Ended (CE), Questions.
Open ended questions require an explanation, closed ended questions require a “yes” or “no” answer.
CE: “Did you like the play?”
OE: “What part of the play was your favorite? Who was your favorite actor?”
CE: “Do you like your job?”
OE: “What are the two best things about your job? What did you want to be growing up?”
CE: “Did you like the sermon?”
OE: “I was really moved by today’s sermon. Do you have a favorite sermon and how did this compare?”
Matt Murray, the deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal told me, “One thing that sometimes works is to ask surprising, even semi-personal questions that could be thought-provoking for the other person, you know, like after asking about what you do for a living, ask do you like it? What do you like most about it? What’s the hardest part of it?
It doesn’t always work but sometimes people respond thoughtfully and actually appreciate a personal interest, and engage beyond workplace banalities.”
Conversation Rule #3 – Learn the Basics of Storytelling
Remember these simple storytelling basics:
- Every story is about a journey.
- Every story has one element or character called the protagonist or hero, that’s who we, the audience identify with.
- All stories begin when something out of the ordinary happens, the inciting incident, which is the spring board for the entire story.
- Every story is about the main character’s actions while trying to accomplish something.
- The character creating the most obstacles to the main character’s actions is called the antagonist.
- Every story contains elements for the head (structure, premise, plot, etc.) and for the heart (emotion, point of view, essential human truth, etc.). You need both.
- Every story has a beginning, middle and an end. The beginning of a story is about the main character’s normal life. The middle of a story is about the main character’s journey and actions in an extraordinary world or unusual circumstance. And the end of the story returns the main character back to their normal life, although something significant is changed.
Knowing this, when someone starts telling you their story, ask them questions related to classic storytelling, such as:
“That sounds like quite a journey, how did it all start?”
“I understand you came back to the States after five years. How were you changed?”
“What was the biggest obstacle you faced when you were launching your brand?”
“What gave you the inspiration to develop this new product?”
“How did your family react when you told them you were quitting your job to start this new company?”
Conversation Rule #4 – Stay Positive
Always be positive.
Resist the urge to complain, gossip, be negative, or critical.
It’s easy starting a conversation about war, dying, crisis, sickness, or spreading dirt about someone else, but in the end, you won’t be remembered for the content of your conversation, only that you leave people feeling negative and slimed.
And, when others go negative, be the person to pivot the conversation back to something positive. Avoid the word “but,” which negates everything said before it (“You may be right, but….”), and replace with the word “and.” (“You may be right, and there’s another group of people who have dedicated themselves to fixing the problem; have you heard of them?)
Make every conversation better, not worse, than you found it.
Conversation Rule #5 – Listen More Than You Speak
Scott Griffith, the CEO of Zipcar, has the art of listening down to a science. Not only does he naturally listen intently, creating the framework for a very intense and intimate conversation, but he also has the uncanny ability to repeat back both the content and context of the conversation at a later time.
Take the role of leader, and give people the opportunity to speak about themselves and what’s important to them. Encourage the person you are talking with to tell you more, and show a sincere interest in what they are saying.
A friend of mine was a genius at this technique and in the Nineties, after a State Dinner at the White House, a foreign leader mentioned to President Clinton that he thought my friend was the best conversationalist he ever met. Later, when Mr. Clinton asked my friend his secret, he was told, “It’s very simple, Mr. President, I just kept saying, ‘Tell me more!’”
And, if you really can’t bring yourself to get over the voices in your head long enough to listen to what the other person is saying, don’t fake it. Excusing yourself from the conversation is infinitely better than verbal and non-verbal insincerity, which is felt immediately.
Conversation Rule #6 – Compliment Something Specific, Followed By An Open Ended Question.
Focus in on one thing that gains your attention, find something nice to say, and then ask an open ended question.
“I love that tie! How do you choose the right tie for a specific occasion?”
“I really enjoyed the part of your speech when you talked about your mother. In what other ways did she inspire you?”
“The second wine you poured — I believe it was a cabernet — was wonderful. How did you come to choose such a delicious wine?”
“I’ve never been to San Francisco before, but I really enjoyed discovering Chinatown. As a native, what’s your favorite part of the city?”
Conversation Rule #7 – Bring other people into the conversation.
Growing an ongoing conversation by adding other people on the fly requires practice, timing, and some background knowledge, yet when done well, it broadens the scope of the conversation, and also provides an exit opportunity for you without disrupting the flow.
“Mr. Ambassador, excuse me for interrupting, and allow me to introduce our chief technology officer who recently returned from your capital city and loved it. Please continue your story about innovation.”
“This is my roommate and just like you, she loves hot sauce. Will you please repeat your story about your trip to Mexico?”
“I’m so glad I found you two standing here, because although you don’t know each other, you both share a love of gardening. What are you growing this year?”
Conversation Rule #8 – Learn to Leave
In stocks, everyone tells you when to buy, no one tells you when to sell. It’s the same in conversation. It’s relatively easy to get a conversation going, the bigger question is, how do you get it to stop?
The answer in two words: gently and decidedly.
Here are the top three tips that will help you exit any conversation with style and grace.
- Interrupt yourself, never another person. When you’re talking, abruptly stop, look at your watch, and say something like, “Please forgive me, I need to go. Please, let’s stay in touch.”
- Recall one detail of the conversation, wait for a natural break, and say, “Thank you so much. You really opened my eyes, and I enjoyed hearing/learning/knowing about the buttons/movie/landscape/new hire/etc. I must go, although I really wish we had more time.”
- Although I don’t use this often, it works flawlessly: Arrange in advance for someone to walk up and hand you a folded piece of paper. Step back, read the note, nod to the person who handed you the note, and say to the person(s) you’re talking to, “Please excuse me, I must go,” and walk away. The only time this didn’t work is when one of my clients took the note from his assistant, excused himself, and walked away, dropping the important note on a nearby table. The person he was talking to saw the note, picked it up, and read, “You owe me one.” Ouch.
My friend, the gifted author and entrepreneur, Jonathan Fields, says, “I use all of these, though not in a tactical way. They tend to come fairly naturally to most people when you make an effort to find people in whom you’re generally interested. Also humility, I think that goes a long way. And sharing brief, relevant, engaging stories, though that can be a pretty high bar to set.”
And Hale Dwoskin, best-selling author and the executive producer and host of the transformational new film, Letting Go, says about becoming a better conversationalist, “Give love as opposed to trying to get love. Be interested or curious rather than interesting.”
Or, you could just call me and we could talk about it.
What are your favorite conversation tips?
photo credit: LunaDiRimmel