Being a journalist by training, I must say I’ve always admired broadcast journalist Barbara Walters.
She does so well what I attempt to do when interviewing clients for a story I’m writing. I try to make it a conversation – not an inquisition.
Barbara Walters has mastered the art of conversation with her interviews of the rich and famous.
She did it again last Friday night, in a 20/20 news magazine interview with President Barack Obama and the First Lady, taped right before Thanksgiving.
Did you see it?
Sure, it was an interview. But it was also a very comfortable, lively exchange among the three that moved delightfully from the Obama family’s Thanksgiving traditions, to their family life, to politics, to the First Lady’s goal of fighting obesity in America. It ended with Thanksgiving messages from the President and Mrs. Obama.
So what are the 12 C’s of great conversation?
How can you converse with sheer pleasure? Without pain? Without strain? Or the awfulness of awkwardness?
First, you have to CARE. Have you ever met people so self-absorbed in their own lives that they make no effort to show they care about you and what you have to say? (Because they’re so preoccupied with themselves, they are the poorest of all listeners!)
If you decide – consciously – to care about others and what they have to say, you might find yourself becoming a better listener (and as a result, a better conversationalist).
Next, you must CONNECT to CREATE a rapport. Conversations are more relaxed, genuine and engaging if everyone feels comfortable with each other. One way to connect is by asking questions to uncover something you have in common with the person – no matter how small.
(Be honest: Haven’t you felt that wave of relief – or perhaps pleasure! – when you were speaking with someone, and you accidentally stumbled upon something you both had in common?) Suddenly there’s a rapport – an instant trust – that makes you want to get to know that person a whole lot better.
Barbara Walters created an instant rapport with the Obamas last week when she made friends with the Obama family dog, Bo, by shaking his paws as they strolled down the hallway of the White House.
Then Barbara looked up and noticed the bigger-than-life portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging on the wall.
She asked the President what Lincoln means to him. Obama said Lincoln “wrestled with the weightiest issues, the biggest crisis our country ever went through. And yet, he never demonized the other side.”
Then Barbara said, “Well, Thanksgiving is a time of healing.”
When Obama quickly added that it was Lincoln who made Thanksgiving a national holiday, Barbara replied, “You know, I didn’t know that.”
You could sense the instant rapport, the instant connection, between these two.
The third C is to be CURIOUS. Draw people out of their shells by asking questions that begin with, “Why did you …?”, “How did you … ?” or “What did you …?”
In general, most people like to talk about themselves and give their opinions on a wide range of subjects. So it’s important to have a childlike curiosity about other people – especially if these people are new or different from you. If you truly believe you can learn something from every person you meet, every conversation will be a treat (not something to be endured).
Fourth, be CONFIDENT and CONTRIBUTE. Don’t hold back. If you have something interesting and relevant to share, speak up and speak clearly.
On the other hand, avoid hogging the stage by constantly refocusing the conversation back on you and your stories.
But if a subject sounds like Greek to you, by all means, stay quiet and listen. If you do, you’re bound to learn something you can share with someone else in a brand-new conversation tomorrow.
Voltaire, the 18th century French writer, absolutely got it right when he said, “One always sounds foolish when one has nothing to say.”
Fifth, CULTIVATE your mind; read widely. Take at least 15 minutes a day to read about current events and explore new topics of interest in print and on the Internet. You don’t have to learn how to speed read (but it helps to know how to skim read) so when opportunities for great conversation present themselves, you’ll have something fascinating to share.
The sixth C is to CONCENTRATE. Focus on what the other person has to say. Make eye contact when you listen. What did you learn? Can you recall later what was said?
When your follow-up questions refer to something the person said previously, you show you were interested because you remembered.
In last week’s interview, Barbara Walters recalled Michelle Obama saying two years ago that she would not cook Thanksgiving dinner in the White House. Barbara wondered if Michelle had kept that pledge. (She had.) I’m sure the First Lady was flattered that Barbara Walters recalled this cooking tidbit from their earlier conversation.
Seventh: CONSIDER a point of view other than your own. When you do, you’ll find your imagination is sparked – and suddenly you’ll be asking more questions and engaging even more deeply in conversation simply because you want to know more.
Eighth: CHECK your body language. Are you sending the right cues when you converse? For example, are you interested, enthusiastic and on the edge of your seat, leaning toward the speaker? Are your arms unfolded, indicating openness? Do you smile and nod, encouraging the speaker to please continue? Do you maintain eye contact while the person is speaking?
The ninth C is to COMPLIMENT (when it makes sense). Last week Barbara Walters threw Michelle Obama a bit of a left-handed compliment when she asked, “Are you sick of people talking about your toned arms?”
Michelle Obama never skipped a beat as she replied, “No, I will never get sick of people talking about my toned arms. If it’s a positive compliment, I am a woman … bring it on. I’m cool with it.”
So remember: When you praise people in conversation, they will be cool with it.
Tenth: NO COMPLAINING. Let’s face it: No one wants to be around a Debbie Downer. I have a friend who constantly launches on everything that is wrong with her life the moment she engages you in conversation. What do I do? I back away and wonder when this painful conversation might end.
People converse because they want an enjoyable moment; they don’t want to be burdened with all your complaints of the day. So before you engage in conversation, take the no-complaining pledge and promise yourself that you’ll remain positive.
The eleventh C is NO CONTROVERSY. Don’t create an impression (or an offense!) by creating a stir. Keep hot-button, volatile topics off the table. Some say the four no-no’s are religion, politics, sex and money – and there are others. Take my advice: If you want to keep the conversation pleasant, don’t go there.
And the twelfth and final C: CONVERT BYSTANDERS. Last month, when I was at a function with familiar and unfamiliar faces, someone unfamiliar arrived late and joined us at our table.
It was amazing to watch everyone continue talking among themselves, paying no attention to our new guest. I reached out, introduced myself and asked him where he worked. He immediately contributed to our conversation. Remember: If you see people standing alone on the outskirts, be polite and respectful and invite them into your circles.
So the next time you get ready to head to another business networking event, or to your daughter’s soccer banquet, or to your spouse’s company holiday party, I hope you’ll keep these 12 C’s of great conversation top of mind and close at hand. #
This blog post began as a speech delivered this morning at Downtown Morning Toasters, a club of Toastmasters International.