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How to talk to absolutely anyone (without looking weird)

Everything you need to guide you through polite patter of BBQ season

How to talk to absolutely anyone (without looking weird)
01 September 2016

A brief word on talking correctly, by author David Whitehouse

Picture the scene. You’re standing somewhere, and someone starts to talk to you. Yeah, we’ve all been there. One minute, choosing between moving your leg or not, the next, thrust on to a conversational tundra of infinite option. “Excuse me,” he’s saying, ”have you tried this mustard?”

Make a good choice – say something funny or profound – and this guy could be telling his friends about you months from now. One of them, Sandra, she’s a television producer; makes wildlife shows. They’re looking for a new Attenborough. Suddenly your phone is ringing.

It could be you, man.

But say something boring, some half-chewed remark about how the actors in Game Of Thrones can’t possibly have known what they were getting themselves into when they signed up for Season 1, and you can kiss goodbye to your pioneering six-part exploration of the ocean floor. See you later, Bafta fellowship.

Don’t panic. It’s just talk. All this guy, looking at you looking at the mustard, wants is what society wants – for you to strike the perfect conversational pitch – so that maybe, just maybe, this chat turns into something more, a moment both of you recall until you die, or at the very least, an exchange from which he doesn’t have to shepherd clear his crying daughters.

Remember, conversation is Latin for tennis (probably). The other participant will feel good if he is able to return serve. If you start spinning bon mots like a demented Gyles Brandreth, they might as well be staring down a 148mph Milos Raonic special aimed straight at the midriff, when the only prep they’ve done is two games of Swingball against their nephew.

This isn’t to say you should dumb down. In fact, the opposite is true. Unless you’re at dinner with Louis Walsh, enter into every dialogue under the assumption that the person you’re talking with is smarter than you are, funnier and more interesting. Deep analysis of any electorate will tell you this isn’t the case, but this will save you from complacency. There are few conversational crimes more severe than dropping a sub-GCSE fact like it’s about to seriously expand some minds.

Don’t tell jokes. Jokes stopped being funny when you were eight. If you were eight, this guy wouldn’t be talking to you at your girlfriend’s boss’s barbecue. And don’t immediately tell a story about yourself. It’s not the ‘You Show’ on Radio You.

Be erudite but don’t show off. Be articulate but speak plainly. Be acerbic but not arch. If you can be all these things, then who knows, perhaps that wildlife series will be yours. And if not, play it safe.

“Have you tried this mustard?”


Which is how Attenborough got it in the first place.

Master the art of difficult conversation, by hostage negotiator David Ryan

1. Identify the type of person you’re dealing with

“Generally, there are two sorts of people: instrumental and emotional. An instrumental person knows exactly what they want. They’re easier to deal with because they’re focused and business-like; they know there’s going to be compromise on both sides. An emotional person is not in control. They didn’t expect to find themselves in this situation and so they can be volatile.”

2. Never say no

“As soon as you say ‘no’, they’ll say, ‘Fine, well this is what I’ll do...’ In a hostage scenario, that could cost someone their life. Instead, get them to a point where they consider for themselves the unlikeliness of their request happening.”

3. They don’t have to like you…

“…But they can still find it easy to speak with you. Building a rapport is not about being a lifelong friend – it’s about getting to a place where you are able to influence behaviour at the end of it.

Get them on to a level playing field with you, emotionally speaking. 

If they’re anxious, you can’t have a rational conversation. Set the tone by establishing a degree of normality in the way that you talk to them.”

4. Don’t give too much away

“It’s tempting to relate a situation back to your personal circumstances. Don’t. It can be used to gain leverage over you. And in my line of work, eventually they’ll come out of prison…”

A storyteller’s guide to telling stories incredibly

Do you want people to find you interesting? Of course you do. We all do. We want that more than rock-hard abs and the corner office at work. Well, a large part of that is the ability to turn any story, no matter how tedious, into something shiny and engrossing.

So, how do you make the story of how you locked yourself out of the office riveting? “People’s stories are usually some version of ‘Those damn curtain rods are still missing and my boss is breathing down my neck to track them down.’” says Derek B Miller, author of The Girl In Green. “That is not a story but a lament. I, for one, wouldn’t care to hear the next sentence.”

So how do you make people care? “Set up with the problem and the consequences: ‘I received an email from my boss at 8:15 saying if I didn’t solve the case of the missing curtain rods by three o’clock, Alice Burns – who is pregnant and single – was going to lose her job.’ That packs in the actors, the action, the tension and the consequences of failure. It humanises it.”

CC Humphreys, author of Fire agrees. “As a historical novelist, I have to make dull things interesting all the time,” he says. “Stories are quite simple: you want something. Someone, or fate, stops you getting it. You triumph or fail, spectacularly.”

The other question: just how much detail to include? “A novelist has to justify including each word, description and line of dialogue,” says Miller. “The stakes aren’t as high in everyday talk but the thinking is the same. Only include details that advance the plot of the story itself or the dramatic pleasure of experiencing it.”

“Beware the tangent,” says Humphreys. “Side paths lead you away from the main story and diffuse the punch line. Cut to the chase.”

Failing that, there is always one sure-fire winner. “As Shakespeare knew, people respond well to puppies,” says Miller. “So if you can find a way to make your story about the welfare of a puppy, you’ve probably got your audience.”

How to hold yourself, and their attention, properly (by body language expert Elizabeth Kuhnke)

1. The ‘I Am A Man’ Pose

“You see a lot of this on the Tube. Guys stand up, spread their legs and the attention goes to them without having to say a word. They link their thumbs into their belt loops, leaving the fingers pointing down to their genitals, which pretty much signals: ‘Check me out, here I am’.”

2. The Insidious Creep

“In social situations, any closer than 12-18in and you’re into somebody’s intimate area. There are some people who will always push in, but it’s too close. And it’s really uncomfortable. Always stand 2-3ft away. You’ll creep people out a lot less, trust me.”

3. The Huncher

“You know that guy whose whole body feels like it’s pulling downwards? He doesn’t make eye contact, the chest caves in, and – most importantly – the shoulders hunch forward. It makes it really hard to talk to somebody. What you want is somebody who is upright. Not ram-rod straight, but as if there were a string being pulled from the crown of the head, lifting the body up.”

And finally, 8 things no man should ever, ever say ever (unless he wants to kill a convo dead in its tracks)

“My dream dinner party guests? Kerouac. Just him. How could you need anyone else? He has been a major influence on my life and my work”

“These sausages are 51 per cent pork. Whoa, that’s interesting, isn’t it? 51.”

“I love a good pun, me!”

“Prithee yeoman! I spy a stout dwarven barbarian who might like to try a bit of live-Action role-playing this bank holiday weekend!”

“Punch me as hard as you can in the face. Did that sound like a request? Do it.”

“I’ve just started writing my own poetry. So. Re. Freshing.”

“I only started truly living when I held Christ’s hand in mine.”

“I just don’t think getting drunk is that cool.”