2000 The Toastmaster
by Patricia Fry
Ten Steps to Becoming a Better Conversationalist
Toastmasters club meetings provide many opportunities for improving public
speaking skills and learning leadership techniques. But what about the most
common aspect of human communication the conversation? Are you also
practicing better conversational skills?
Dr. Bruce Gladstone of Gladstone Counseling Services in Ojai, CA, in a
recent article for the Ojai Valley News said, Conversation is an
essential element in virtually every relationship we have. To a great extent,
the quality of our relationships depends on our ability to converse
Its true. How can there be deep caring where there is no meaningful
communication? How is understanding established where people cant talk to
one another? How are information and instructions passed along when folks
dont know how to converse effectively?
Its ironic that we receive so little training to help us hone
conversational skills when we rely on this ability everyday of our lives. You
probably remember your parents and grade school teachers saying,
Dont interrupt while Im talking. And, Look at me
when Im speaking to you. This is still good advice. For the most
part, however, our conversational style and habits werent taught, but
they developed over years of modeling others and receiving peer feedback.
The man who cant finish a sentence without joking, probably enjoyed
getting laughs as a youngster. He may have felt self-conscious about speaking
to others, found that laughter eased the discomfort and created the joking
habit in his everyday conversation. He found a way to compensate for his
inadequacies and now hes hard pressed to speak to anyone with a straight
face and a straight line.
Theres a master plumber in my town whos a pretty good listener,
but his conversational style amounts strictly to grunts, guffaws and short
predictable phrases. Maybe his parents did all of the talking for him when he
was small. Perhaps the adults in his childhood didnt listen to him.
Whatever the reasons for his limited use of the language, remarkably, after 61
years, he still hasnt found a reason to develop better conversational
Feedback is a powerful tool in helping someone change their poor
conversational habits and this is evidenced through the success of the
Toastmasters program. A person has to first acknowledge that there is a
problem, however, and they have to want to improve.
Most people hesitate criticizing the communication habits of others. How do
you say to a coworker, You talk like you have a mouth full of mush
cant you enunciate more clearly? Or to a friend, I hate
talking to you because you never respond to what I say. You go off telling your
own story all the time without ever acknowledging mine.
What if you were to say to the coworker, I love the way you present
your thoughts, Margaret. Its difficult for some of us to understand you,
though, when you swallow your words. It would be to your professional benefit
if you would practice speaking more clearly. Id be happy to help.
To the friend, one might stop him in midstream whenever he commits his faux
pas and say, Wait! Were talking about me right now. Im
interested in your story, but first, Id like to finish mine and then I
want to hear your comments about what Ive told you.
I know a woman who often talks over you. I called her on this once. I said,
Thats the third time today that youve asked me something and
then started talking over me when I responded. She was obviously shocked
for a moment and then she said that she appreciated my pointing that out to
her. She said that was a family trait. Everyone in my family talks at
once. Its a bad habit that Im trying to break.
What are your habitual conversation blunders? Is there something specific
that youre working on? Are you aware of a problem in your way of
conversing, but youve chosen to ignore it because no one seems to notice
or care? Maybe you have an annoying habit and dont know it.
The 1950 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia states, The
ability to engage in interesting conversation is one of the greatest personal
assets a man or woman can have. It is a great aid to business and social
success and also makes for greater enjoyment of the company of other
persons. I think well agree that this is still true fifty years
Its elementary, but worth repeating there are two parts to
effective conversation: speaking and listening. And both parts take thought and
skill. Here are some tips for becoming a better, more respected
· Make eye contact. Looking directly at the other person is a
courteous indication that you are listening. I have a deficiency in this area.
I find it easy to look someone in the eyes when Im talking to them, but
when they are speaking to me, my eyes tend to wander. Of course, since Im
aware of this, its something that I consciously work on during my
conversations with others.
· Speak clearly and audibly. Its inconsiderate to mumble
or to speak so softly that you cant be heard, yet I frequently encounter
people who do this. Most of us dont know how we sound to others. If
people consistently ask you to speak up or to repeat yourself, you may have an
audibility problem. Record yourself speaking in conversational style. Listen to
the tape and see if you are easily heard. Ask others to evaluate your voice and
its volume. Is your voice pleasant? Too quiet? Too loud?
I have a friend whose voice trails off so it can scarcely be heard at the
end of her sentences. She often speaks in front of large groups and, instead of
changing this habit, she always apologizes for it before starting her talk.
Shell say, Please forgive me if my voice trails off. It has a
tendency to do that sometimes.
Once youre aware of any problems with your vocal volume or
enunciation, start working to improve.
- Ask a friend to remind you whenever you fall back into your old habits.
- Seek professional help from a voice coach for stubborn habits.
· Speak at a good pace. Weve all been in conversations
with people who talk so fast that you cant keep up or so slowly that, by
the time they finish expressing their thought, youve forgotten the topic.
If you tend to speed talk or speak ever so s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y, here are some
Speed talking sometimes develops from conversation anxiety. You may have
learned from past experiences that if you dont get your words in quickly,
you might not get a chance to participate in the conversation. Relax.
Concentrate on slowing down. Practice forming each word as you speak. Trust
that you will have a chance to share your views and that people will listen. If
your comments are well thought out and interesting, you will be heard.
Some slow talkers are created by an unconscious desire to control: As
long as Im the speaker, Im in control of the conversation.
Other people speak slowly because theyre still formulating their thoughts
while theyre speaking. If the latter describes you, try thinking through
your thoughts before delivering them and your pace may automatically improve.
· Use language and images familiar to the listener. You probably
notice that you get more out of a conversation with someone who speaks and
thinks like you do, than someone who uses vocabulary differently.
Your conversations will be more effective if you try to speak the language
of the person with whom youre talking. Use different words and inflection
when speaking to your minister than when conversing with the teenager down the
street, for example. A conversation with your type A boss will be
more successful if you quickly get to the point. When visiting with your
mother-in-law, you may want to be more relaxed and chatty.
· Stick to the topic. G. Robert Geyer, tells a lively story
about conversation stealers (published in The Toastmaster,
September, 1999 issue). He says that conversation stealers are people who jump
in on your story to change the focus to themselves or to something that they
know more about. As an example, I might want to tell a friend about having gone
roller skating with my grandchildren over the weekend when she quickly says,
I remember the last time I went skating. Or, I had a great
weekend, too. I went shopping and we had tea with the Marleys did you
know that Jim and Bev Marley bought the sporting goods store downtown?
If you frequently steal the show in conversations, take steps to change this
bad habit. How? When youre talking with someone, try focusing your
attention on them more. This is not to say that you shouldnt tell your
story. Of course, you can relate your experiences or thoughts. Just make sure
that you also hear the other persons saga and that you acknowledge it
before sharing yours.
Its also important to know when to change the subject. Whether you
initiated the conversation or not, change the subject when there appears to be
nothing new to say or when others begin to fidget or act bored.
· Know when to speak and when to listen. Conversation should be
give and take. Each person involved in a conversation needs to speak and each
needs to listen. Participate but dont monopolize.
Sometimes someone else puts you in the position of monopolizing a
conversation. They ask question after question about you without offering
anything of themselves. Youd think that having someone express that much
interest in your life would be the height of enjoyment and flattery. But after
a while it begins to feel like an interrogation rather than a conversation.
I have a couple of friends who tend to grill me when we meet. Ive
learned to turn the tables on them after a couple of questions. Ill say,
for example, Thanks for asking about my book its scheduled
for release next month. Now what about your son, how did he land the job
writing for the church newsletter?
· Express an interest in whats being said. This seems like
an elementary statement,
but, if youre at all observant, youll notice that not everyone
follows this good advice. Face the speaker with unfolded arms. Lean forward
slightly. Make eye contact. Acknowledge statements with a nod, comment or
question when appropriate.
· Ask open-ended questions to promote communication that
is, questions that require more than a yes or no response. Start questions with
why, how or what. Why did you move to this area from
Florida? What caused you to enter the flower business?
Tell me how you managed to keep your head above water in business during
the recession. How has your profession changed since you entered
· Be prepared. A good conversationalist engages his/her
listeners and stimulates conversation. Hone your conversational skills by
keeping up with trends and current events. Live an interesting life. Try new
things so youll have something to talk about. Accept unusual invitations.
See controversial plays. Do volunteer work. Begin a new hobby. Travel. Go back
to school. Read. Change jobs or professions.
· Model someone whose conversational skills you admire. Who do
you most enjoy conversing with? We all know someone who gets a lot of attention
at social events and business meetings. What makes this person stand out in a
crowd? What are some of his most endearing qualities? How does he make you feel
when youre conversing with him? Study his body language, his opening and
closing statements and his speaking style. Ask him about his philosophy
regarding communication. Does his attitude about people in general reflect in
his approach to conversation? To improve your conversational skills, mimic
someone who you consider successful in this area.
Being a good conversationalist isnt a natural trait. It takes thought
and practice. Apply these effectiveness tools and improve your ability to
converse in any situation or circumstance.
Patricia Fry is the author of A Writers
Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press,