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The definitive guide to talking about almost anything

August 13, 2011

I was following up a new business lead this week, and wanted to put a little ice-breaker in the email. As this guy is heavily involved in an NRL team, I thought I’d mention their weekend game.

I had no idea how to read the results table, so I rang my brother to check the details.  Turns out they had beaten my brother’s team in an epic comeback the week before, so I mentioned this in my email.

Later on, one of my colleagues pointed out that if I saw this guy in real life, I’d be in trouble when he tried to engage me in a conversation about football. To which I promptly replied, ‘Have you ever seen me unable to talk about a topic, just because I don’t know anything about it?’.

And herein lies one of my most useful traits. I can engage anyone in conversation, and indeed look like I know about stuff, without even thinking about it. Not in a deceptive kind of way where I pretend to be an expert; just int he way where a small nugget of knowledge leads to a longer conversation.

I think I inherited this talent from my dad. He has an impressive working knowledge, for example, of 90’s grunge music, acquired while we were teenagers so he could be a ‘cool’ dad.

As you can imagine, being able to talk shit about almost anything is very useful. So I had a think about how I do it, and came up with these tips:

  • Know a little bit about a lot of things. You do this by paying attention to stuff that’s outside your usual interests. Read sections of the paper you wouldn’t normally. Follow random links on Twitter or Facebook. Talk to people about their profession. (I just do this because I’m a nerd, but it has its uses too).
  • Ask specific questions. This is where you use your small amount of knowledge. So don’t ask, ‘how do you think your team will go this weekend?’, ask, ‘Your team has made surprising comeback; how are they going to sustain it?’. Or instead of ‘Do you still listen to Pearl Jam?’, ask ‘Do you think Pearl Jam peaked too early, or do you like their later stuff as well?’. (Peaked with their debut album Ten, in my view).
  • Appreciate the other person’s knowledge. Remember, we’re not pretending to be experts on a topic, we’re just starting a conversation in an intelligent way. Once you’ve engaged someone on a topic they like or know lots about, it’s easy to get them on a roll. Just keep the useful questions going.
  • Relate it back to what you know. I was speaking to a client about their business process improvement work for mortgage origination. WTF, you ask? Yes, it’s pretty esoteric. But I have a mortgage, and I am a banking customer, so I was able to draw out the details based on how the process affects the end user. And I wasn’t afraid to simplify the conversation to get there.
  • Be interested. Seriously, if you are only pretending to take an interest, it’s probably not worth following these tips. If you don’t find other people endlessly fascinating, as I do, you’re better off just watching the footy.



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  1. Maybe there’s another one which requires a bit of self-sacrifice. Sadly for my chances at the Katoomba RSL trivia nigh, and other possibll interactions with the general public, it’s not one I’m prepared to make. It is “watch free to air TV”, which means you can talk to people about Master Chef and the Block. I think I would rather miss that particular connection with a client than have to sit through that stuff. (Although I was able to answer the question at trivia last week “What city in NSW Does Kate Bracks come from?” because there just HAD to be a Master Chef question about that subject, so I sort of cheated and googled “Master Chef winner 2011” before I left – is that what you mean?)

  2. Chelsea Grint permalink

    “Know a little about a lot of things”. I could not have put it better if I tried. This is something I see in people and envy. It makes you wonder how in the world they have time to become so well-rounded. I will have to take your advice and read articles I would not have normally or follow businesses that would not originally peak my interest. Thanks for the post!

    • One of the best ways to squeeze in extra knowledge is listening to podcasts – while you’re walking, cooking or whatever. I listen to everything from ABC radio through to This American Life. It’s always interesting, and you can get an international flavour too.

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