“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imaginations, we learned to talk.”
– Stephen Hawking

It’s good to talk. Those of us of a certain age will remember that BT used to tell us as much in their adverts (designed to encourage us to make more telephone calls). And they are right, it is good to talk – who doesn’t enjoy passing the time of day chatting about everything and nothing with some friends, perhaps over a couple of drinks or a bite to eat?
But there is much more to talking than that, and those who master the art and skills of talking can open themselves up to whole new worlds of possibilities; all of us can.

When do you talk with people? And why? (Did you notice I asked about talking with people as opposed to talking to people? There is a difference; a big difference.)

When you meet strangers, be it at the bus stop or at a party or at a seminar or where ever, what is your reaction?

  • Is it to close yourself off and hope nobody says so much as hello?
  • Is it to exchange brief pleasantries but in such a was as to make it clear that there will be no further conversation?
  • Is it to hope that someone else will start talking to you so you can tell them all about what you have been doing?
  • Is it to initiate conversation and to seek to find out and learn about your fellow passengers / party goers / delegates?

Most of us probably, if we are honest, fit into one of the first 3 categories. Yet what if we were in the 4th category? What difference would that make to our lives?
What difference indeed. Aside from meeting new people, potentially making new friends, making new business contracts, brightening up someone else’s day, being the person others look up to as someone who can get a room talking…

OK, so engaging strangers (or, as someone once described them, friends we have not yet met) in conversation can be beneficial to both parties. That’s great, but how do you go about it? Surely you don’t just walk up to them and say “Hello”?!
Well, yes, that pretty much is what you do! Walk up, say hello, introduce yourself and ask who they are, and you’ve already started a conversation. The trick from hereon in, however, is to keep the conversation flowing and that’s where many people can fall down.
Where many people go wrong is to introduce themselves and start talking about themselves. Sure, it may sound like you’ve got a conversation going, but really all you are doing is probably boring a random stranger! Think about it from their view – someone you don’t know comes up to you, says hello, asks your name, then tells you all about them; how interested are you likely to be in a random stranger foisting all this detail about their life on to you? Unless it is someone particularly interesting, the chances are you are going to be looking to escape as quickly as possible and to avoid them for the rest of the evening!
But all is not lost, for there is a secret which, when you master it (and it is quite simple), should pretty much guarantee you evening after evening of bright conversation with many different strangers.
You get them to talk about that which most interests them, namely themselves. But you do it subtly and gently – its not generally going to go down well demanding they tell you all about themselves, no, you need to guide the conversation. Careful use of questions works wonders here, but again the trick is not to make it seem like an interview or grilling.
Depending upon the situation, whether it is more of a social gathering or a business-related event, a sure-fire winner of an opening question is to ask what they enjoy or what they do for a living (watching to make sure they are comfortable about the topic, of course – some people hate their job and so are not going to be too keen to talk about it – quickly switch to asking about what they would prefer to do instead, or what hobby they have, and you can still safe the conversation deftly).

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Just watch the temptation to turn it around to you again – even if they enjoy something close to your heart, resist the urge to comment how you love that too and then rattle on and on about it from your perspective – you are seeking to gain rapport with them and to get them to open up, talking about you is going to kill that off.

Carefully used open questions based on what they say are invaluable here.

For example, suppose you meet someone who tells you they are a writer. How interesting, but what to say next? Something such as asking them what their preferred genre is will demonstrate an interest in them, and give them more to talk about – you can follow up by asking what it is about that genre which they enjoy, ask them where their work might be read – this one is far more open ended than “Have you got a book in the shops?”, for example! Pretty soon, with just a few carefully guided questions, you’ll have them at their ease, happily talking away, seeing you as an interested soul – and when you reach that stage, they will also start to be interested in you, and conversation can really flow.
Do this a few times over the course of the day / evening / event, and several people will already be viewing you in a much more friendly light, and you may well make a few useful contacts.
Even if, after establishing a conversation, you find you have nothing in common with the other person, that’s no problem. It’s easy enough to find a polite reason to curtail the chat and move on. But always remember to make a note of each person and their interests, even if they are not of interest to you – if you meet a second artist that evening who loves working with acrylics, for example, then you can introduce two like-minded people to each other, and your own standing rises accordingly!

If the thought of walking into a crowded room and doing this feels daunting, then don’t worry, for everyday life offers us unlimited opportunities to practice – in the bus queue, at the shop, in the elevator, pretty much anywhere you come into contact with people you can have a bash, even just for a very short chat.

So next time you find yourself with other people, all sat or standing there in an uneasy silence, try introducing yourself to one of them, with a friendly handshake, and ask them something about themselves. Keep doing this every time you get the opportunity, and over time it’ll become second nature to you. And before you know it, you will be the one entering a room full of strangers and coming away with a collection of new friends, the person who is known as the person to get the room chatting.

Just think where that can lead you, and all you need to do is to keep talking!