After 14 years of working obsessively to become a better conversationalist, I can still be a real self-centered jackass. I’m guilty of some pretty bad conversational habits at times. I’m not too proud to admit that sometimes I still interrupt people, don’t listen to what you’re trying to tell me, and make the conversation all about me.
And, I’m willing to bet you do too.
You might be a perfectly charming, genuine person when you talk to your clients, colleagues, and friends. But, like the rest of us, you still occasional lay waste to some otherwise great conversations by letting your ego get in the way.
I made it a point to find the biggest ‘conversational sins’ that are killing our interactions and – more importantly – what we can do to polish things up. I took pages of notes about my own personal fuck-ups and bad habits.
I also interviewed over 20 people who I think are charming, charismatic, and great conversationalists, including bartenders, salespeople, actors, a rockstar, and other equally riveting people.
I put these all together into what I think are the three biggest conversation killers out there and how you can make sure you keep having awesome interactions & connections. Let’s take a look, shall we?
SIN #1: Being Overly Opinionated & Judgmental
This is a biggie. Maybe the most annoying conversational habit out there.
Doing this regularly is a surefire way to alienate people and have them think you’re a giant asshole.
The other night, while writing this article at a nearby bar, a favorite song of mine came on the bar’s loudspeaker: “Peg” by Steely Dan.
For some reason that I still don’t understand, Steely Dan is a divisive topic amongst music fans. You either love them or loathe them and everyone seems to have a strong opinion on them.
At any rate, “Peg” comes on and I say out loud (to no one, really), “Oh man! I love Steely Dan! This is a great song”. At almost the exact same time, the guy down the bar has the opposite opinion: “God, I can’t fucking stand Steely Dan!”.
That’s cool. I get it. They’re not for everyone.
Noticing the irony, I glance over at him and start to chuckle, assuming that we’ll share a laugh. How wrong I was!
“What? You actually like Steely Dan?! Ugh, man. They’re awful”, he snarled at me.
Instead of being curious about why I liked about Steely Dan and having a conversation about our musical tastes, this guy spent the next few minutes berating me for my taste in one band that I barely listen to, like a caricature of some hipster dork who works at a vinyl-only music store.
As you can imagine, this got old real quick and I ended the conversation, going back to chatting with the cute brunette next to me.
Be More Curious & Less of a Jerk
Being overly vocal about some pointless opinion you have or being judgmental about someone else’s opinion is a surefire way to alienate people really quick. People start to see you as a pedantic asshole who is more concerned about being ‘right’ than being a cool, interesting person they want to know.
If you’re in a situation where you and the other person/people differ on opinions, instead of judging them, just be curious and ask them why they love what they love. Why do they find something so fascinating when, truthfully, it’s boring as hell to you? You can even be totally honest with them and say something like, “Hey, I’m not actually a big fan of [whatever] but I’m curious why you love it so much. What do you dig about it?”
If you’re still struggling with being argumentative and judgmental, know that you can have an opinion on something and still be all about it, even though I’m not into it. Simple as that. Your opinion and my happiness are mutually exclusive.
TL;DR – Conversation is not a soapbox for either of you; it’s an awesomely dynamic forum where you learn about one another and engage in intriguing curiosity.
SIN #2: Being A Boring Storyteller
For years, when someone was called a ‘storyteller’ I immediately thought one of two things. First, this person was being accused of stretching the truth in creative ways (this was basically a really nice way of calling someone a liar). Second, the person was telling a narrative in a structured, formal environment, such as a TED Talk or around a campfire.
The first definition is mostly bullshit. The second definition is getting closer to the mark but still limits the power of telling great stories. Truthfully, storytelling can – and should – happen wherever human experiences intersect with each other. Storytelling is not just reciting some fictional fairy tale like Little Red Riding Hood to your niece…
Storytelling is about conveying information to others in a meaningful and engaging way.
The fact is, though, most people are not good storytellers and make their conversations one long ramble, stringing together one fact with another, punctuated by a series of passionless breaths. There’s no concern for making the words enticing or meaningful. It’s the death knell of failing conversations.
Take this dialogue between a husband and wife, for example:
Husband: “Hey beautiful, tell me about your day!”
Wife: “Well, when I got the train station it was raining and I forgot my umbrella. Then, the train took 20 minutes longer than normal to get to the office. Once I got to the office, I had four hours of meetings and I didn’t get to eat lunch until 2PM…”
I just made myself bored writing this little dialogue. So, you can only imagine how tuned out you’d be if you were listening to this in real life.
One of the people I interviewed for this article – Brian, a bartender – called this bad habit “Facting”.
As a bartender and awesome conversationalist, Brian talks to hundreds of people every week and says this is one of the quickest, easiest ways to be boring. I don’t know if he coined this term but it’s a perfect description of this incredibly boring habit.
Facts on their own aren’t intriguing; facts presented with meaning, personal experience, and humor become compelling stories.
The Three Keys to Telling a Great Story
Good storytelling – and good storytellers – can elevate benign and mundane experiences into an engaging narrative that keeps people listening and intrigued.
Ira Glass, the host of NPR’s This American Life and a damn good storyteller, said that no matter how boring the facts behind a story are, truly great stories have three key ingredients:
- Built-in Suspense: Suspense comes from a number of verbal and non-verbal elements that the speaker uses to create intrigue and change up the feeling of the story. This includes varying your speaking speed and rhythm, using gestures and body language to create & shift the story’s energy, and employing colorful language and metaphors to paint a more vibrant picture of the facts that make up your story.
- “The Carrot and The Stick”: If you’ve set the story up with a suspenseful undercurrent, you’ve started to raise intrigue. You’ve ‘hooked’ the listener with a few unanswered questions. By leaving some vital questions open for a while, you’ve created incentive for the listeners to hang on to the words you’re saying.
By employing the tools of suspense above, you can make your story more enticing for your listeners to hang-on for the resolution. People like resolution, but they love mystery.
- A Reason for Listening: This is a big reason why otherwise cool stories can fall flat. This really comes back to making the story useful, meaningful, and relevant to your audience. Why the hell are they even listening to you?
You could have the most intriguing set of facts but if you don’t bother to answer the question of ‘Why do I need to know this?’, then your story is trivia at best. Did you think about what will have your audience become better people by listening to you? Think about that.
Being a memorable person and great conversationalist doesn’t come from just being able to talk a lot. Hell, it doesn’t even have anything to do with having stories to tell.
Being memorable comes from being able to speak in a way that takes people somewhere new, has them feel something, and teaches them new things about the world and themselves.
SIN #3: Making It All About You
This sin could easily be its own article, to be honest. Hell, the behavior here is so damn rampant, there’s probably enough material to fill a book.
The ways that this sin manifests itself in conversation are numerous. Some are subtle and almost benign. Others are rude and downright obnoxious – basically, just douchebag behavior masquerading as charisma. Regardless of its outer shell, they all have the same nasty insides: self-importance, with your agenda being far more important than whatever anyone else thinks.
For the sake of brevity, though, I’ve narrowed the list down to five widely different behaviors that all stem from being a self-important conversationalist.
Let’s dig in…
Five Ways to Lose Friends & Annoy People
- Pulling Rank: You can also call this “oneupsmanship” or “bragging”. This is where everything you say is meant to boost your status in the pecking order of the conversation. If someone says they have a Masters Degree, you say you have a PhD. If someone has tickets to a concert, you’ve got backstage passes. If your friend saw a movie, you actually went to the star’s wedding. You get the idea. Not only do you always relate everything back to you, but you end up making everyone else feel like shit in the process.
- Interrupting: This one is pretty damn cut and dry. You never let someone finish their story and end up adding your own color commentary where it doesn’t belong. It’s a complete slap in the face that says in a not-so-subtle way, “I don’t give a damn what you have to say. I’m more important right now.” The solution to this? Plain and simple: Just stop doing it.
- “Big Timing”: In this little gem, every single topic in a conversation is about that person or something great they’ve done. Once one topic has run its course…BAM!…it’s something else about how awesome or interesting or successful they are. They never step out of the limelight and put the attention on others, being curious and interested about someone else besides themselves.
- Playing Therapist: On the surface, this is a pretty innocent little sin. I mean, you’re giving them advice and telling them the right way to handle their business. It’s for the best, you’ve got all the best intentions. Right? But, without actually asking what they need and automatically assuming they wanted to hear your opinion, you’re missing out on what they actually want.
- Always. Be. Closing.: In the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, there’s a famous scene where Alec Baldwin delivers a speech to his team of shady salesmen to “ABC: Always. Be. Closing.”; they are to always push the sale forward, never taking their finger off the trigger. It’s all about their agenda and what they’re selling at all times, not what the customer wants or needs. If you want to leave a real impact on people, ask what they need before you try to convince them of something or push on with your own agenda.
Putting It All Together
This post was absolutely written a little tongue-in-cheek. The tone was supposed to be a little sarcastic and cheeky but the intent was serious as ever.
You see, we have these moments in our social lives, our intimate relationships, and our careers to have fun and connect with people. But, too often we let our bad habits and lack of skills get in the way.
Regardless of your bad habits or skill sets, though, becoming a more memorable speaker is based on the three simple principles of curiosity about others, creating more meaningful stories, and putting your attention/intention on the people you’re talking to.
It’s my honest-to-god belief that putting real effort and time into growing in these areas will help you grow in those areas of your life that matter most: where you’re connecting with other people.