How to Be a Good Conversationalist?
I had first heard of Toastmasters in 2005, in an Italian cafe. One day I was lounging around with a friend sipping on an espresso when one of the regulars of the cafe walked in. He was a big, loud and obnoxious man. If you have ever been in an Italian cafe, you know there are two subjects that Italians are really passionate about: politics and soccer (football for you European readers.) Instigated by someone’s comment, he started telling people how Italy was going to win the World Cup in 2006 (which they did!). Most people gathered around listening to what he was saying. Some agreed, some disagreed, but mostly everyone argued. However, I was listening attentively. I didn’t really care what he was saying (I’m not a fan of the sport); rather how he presented his speech is what grabbed my attention. The way he spoke was truly remarkable. He was brash, but also articulate, eloquent and surprisingly coherent. I turned to my friend Maurice and asked:
“Hey Mo, where did a guy like that, learn to speak that way?” I asked in a somewhat belittling tone.
“Toastmasters” replied Maurice, unsurprisingly “He was in the Toastmasters International semifinals two years in a row.”
I learned two very important lessons that day:
- Never judge a book by its cover; and,
- At times, I can be an asshole.
I quickly finished my coffee, jump into my car and rushed home so that I could Google the closest Toastmasters group near me.
Public speaking isn’t a skill that people can learn; you’re either born with it or you’re not. So I thought. I was wrong. Not only is it a skill one can learn, it is also a highly sought after skill in the job market. If you can clearly speak and present your ideas people will be drawn to you.
So being an introvert, my goal was to learn to control my fears about public speaking, and to become less shy around co-workers and people in general. Since I am a business consultant, I regularly have to speak in front of a large audience. So I figured that it would be a win-win situation for me.
Having attended Toastmaster was the best thing that ever happened for my career. Not only did I learn to speak in public and control my fear but I also was presented with an opportunity to meet people who are in the same situation as me. That’s the real secret of Toastmasters. Not the meeting itself, but before and after (and during breaks): you have no choice but to mingle with people and learn conversational skills. You also learn to listen. In the process, you learn not to judge people.
Here are a few tips that may help you:
- Don’t be an ass;
- Be genuinely interested in that person;
- Listen attentively;
- Give sincere compliments;
- Don’t speak about politics and religion (there is a reason they are well-known taboo topics); and,
- Ask Questions.
My suggestion is to join your local group and attend every weekly session for at least one year. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.