Me No Speaky Good, Help Me MetaFilter!
January 19, 2008 9:46 AM   Subscribe

[ConversationFilter] Me no speaky so good no more. Please help!

I've become what I can't stand... a boring conversationalist. Don't get me wrong, I have things to say. I just can't seem to say them in an engaging way. I have trouble structuring stories, anecdotes, or even simple statements of more than a few sentences in a way that keeps anyone's attention. I feel like I just end up either talking in circles, repeating the same points over and over, or going off on uninmportant tangents. The result is always that same "get to it" look on people's faces.

Things haven't always been this way. I've been hunkered down for the last few years spending most of my days and nights with my girlfriend, cat, and laptop, so it's obvious that lack of social interaction is behind this. But when I go out to be social, I'm at a loss for conversation.

Anyone have any ideas or resources? Been through something like this before? Should I just give up and adopt more cats?
posted by willie11 to Human Relations (26 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Don't give up! Like so many things, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery! Start by focusing on listening; if you want people to enjoy listening to you, start by enjoying listening to them. (Plus the whole "You have 1 mouth, but 2 ears" philosophy.) Start out with small tidbits to add to others' stories/comments and build from there. But don't force it. Like so many of the beautiful things in life, let this come to you. And don't feel bad if the first few times out you're still relatively quiet. You have a plan!
posted by 53B3L1U5 at 9:53 AM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pretend you're Letterman interviewing the person you're talking to.
posted by gjc at 9:58 AM on January 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you've been spending a lot of time in, and feel like your skills are rusty, then it seems like in order to get them working smoothly again (since you say it hasn't always been like this) you should try to put yourself in as many situations as possible where you'll need to be making small talk. It sounds like you're getting discouraged by your missteps (and -speaks) at the moment; you'll still be saying awkward things and trailing off for a while, but with more experience you'll recognize patterns and behaviors for the times when you didn't end up feeling like an ass. Learn from your experiences -- but to do so, you've gotta have a lot of experiences.

I taught myself how to make small talk with people through years of customer service in high school, and I can still put myself back in that mode when I want to interact professionally or with strangers. Do you have any sort of learned mode you could switch on in dire situations of awkwardness?
posted by dorothy humbird at 10:04 AM on January 19, 2008

willie11: I feel like I just end up either talking in circles, repeating the same points over and over, or going off on uninmportant tangents. The result is always that same "get to it" look on people's faces.

Stop talking; start asking. Ask ask ask. Get people talking about themselves. When there's something you want to say, turn it around and form a question to the other person instead. And listen to what they have to say.

When this has become your default approach, start contributing an anecdote here and there when it seems appropriate, or wait to be asked. Don't dominate the conversation.

Look, if all else fails people like to feel someone cares what they think or what they've experienced. But you also get the opportunity to learn about other people, to figure out what makes their stories compelling, and to figure out what's a natural balance of me to you in a conversation. It takes away the pressure you're putting on yourself to entertain and gives you space to be a generous conversationalist instead of "winning".
posted by loiseau at 10:06 AM on January 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

You're not going to engage people if you're doing all the talking; there's only so much people can take. Like loiseau said, start asking some questions!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:11 AM on January 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Pretend you're Letterman interviewing the person you're talking to.

Don't make Paris Hilton cry by hammering on and on about how the food was in prison.

Maybe you should bear in mind the bank robber's maxim: get in, get the money, get out. Have a point in mind, make your contribution, sit back. From your question it seems you worry about your conversational performance more than the content. Maybe practice making your points as succinctly as possible for a while.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:13 AM on January 19, 2008

People are most interested when they are engaged on a sensory level.

53B3L1U5 nails it with the "two ears, one mouth" comment. However, take that to the next level and actively listen and USE what you're hearing. People provide you with great cues when they speak. Ask someone about a recent vacation and listen to how they describe it: sounds, sights, smells, tastes? Turn around and describe your own similarly, or whip out one of your anecdotes and use the sensory language cues given by your fellow conversationalist.

Turn it from work, or an exercise into fun for you in sharing a dialogue to which they'll viscerally respond. It'll make all the difference for the both of you in your conversation.
posted by skybyke at 10:29 AM on January 19, 2008

I get like that too when I've been inside my own head for long periods and then suddenly have to converse. What helps is that before I get to the party (or pick up the phone to call someone), I mentally review the recent week or month or whatever and try to condense it into a few little tidbits. That way, if someone asks, "How was your trip?" I don't only have a rambling series of impressionistic notes -- I have a couple of real sentences. ("The weather was amazing the whole time; some days I just drove around looking at different parts of the city." "Mostly working, but I found a great local radio station that I want to try to find on the internet now that I'm back." "I went to a museum and two movies.")

You can do this even if your last month was just working and hanging out at home. Review what shows or types of shows you've been watching on TV (or books, or websites) so you can mention that if someone asks what you've been up to. Have you been cooking? Even if you've been eating take-out every night, or playing video games every night, if you present that as a "thing" you've been doing, it becomes a topic. Everyone has either done it or wondered what it'd be like, so they can relate when you present it simply. For extra leverage in turning it into a conversation, say your simple sentence and then add, "Have you ever done that?"
posted by xo at 10:39 AM on January 19, 2008 [10 favorites]

I sometimes have trouble speaking where I can't come up with the right word or my words get jumbled in my head so instead of saying "airport" I say "hospital" (that's just one example of many). Or instances where the sentence goes through my head and it comes out truncated so that I don't make sense, an example being I was watching television earlier this morning and saw a man with a painted on helmet. I knew it was paint but I said "wow, nice hat" because in my head I was thinking that it was a nice painting OF a hat.

Okay so it might be different than what you are having a problem with. My sometimes solution is to slow down my speaking and actually think about what I want to say instead of just letting it flood out of my mouth and hoping that it all comes out right. It doesn't work all of the time but when it does I feel awesome (the little things right?).
posted by collocation at 10:43 AM on January 19, 2008

learn more about the world we live in. Subscribe to some good news magazines, read some books, the morning paper etc. These will give you things to talk about!
posted by Salvatorparadise at 10:45 AM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hmmmm, all of these are wonderful bits of advice. Indispensable stuff. I appreciate it and it will undoubtedly help, however it is not exactly what I'm in search of.

I have a lot to talk about. What I read today on MetaFilter & ALDaily alone could start enough conversations to last the month. My problem is executing the conversation in a succinct and engaging manner.

I'm moving to a new city at the end of the month and I'm afraid that my year-long self-imposed semi-exile from society has left me out of synch with the rest of the world. What are some good ways to practice the art of conversation and/or making a good impression?
posted by willie11 at 11:03 AM on January 19, 2008

Perhaps then willie11 you need to identify the friends you have talked well with in the past and get together or give 'em a call?
I think I recognise the phenomenon you're talking about. I can be a pretty good bar-room philosopher and chatbot. I used to work in a pub and grew up in a culture that valued the ability to have the crack. I've since moved abroad to a country with a different language and work mostly from home and I find I sometimes lose it a bit here, as I'm not getting the same kind of work-out with my peers regularly. There's all those other upsides to catching up with mates from the past too - great in and of itself plus you know they like you and you might be less intimidated by the fear of boring them. Nothing like chatting to one of my siblings on the phone to get me right back into the shared joy of a good cantering natter.
posted by Abiezer at 11:21 AM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

There was a somewhat similar question asked here a few weeks ago. I paid attention to it because I have similar issues, but for some reason I didn't favorite it, and now I can't find it.

In any case, there was one piece of advice there that stuck out to me: talk to yourself. While you are showering, pick a subject and talk to yourself about it. If you are making yourself a sandwich, describe the process to yourself. This way you can hear yourself talk and pick out the posts where you start to ramble, or go in circles, or stammer. Just extemporize and see what happens.

I have started doing this and it's strange at first, but I have to say that it has helped. Also, I don't recommend letting you other people catch you in the middle of talking to yourself. It's kind of an awkward thing to explain.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 11:25 AM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pick out the posts? I meant pick out the parts. Yikes!
posted by DrGirlfriend at 11:26 AM on January 19, 2008

"Succinct" is the key word in your second post. I don't know if it's the Sesame Street or MTV influence or what, but it seems like people have much shorter attention spans these days. I used to be in the habit of giving lots of background and tangential information when making a point in a conversation (sort of pre-empting any anticipated rebuttals), but then people started interrupting me, and I developed a bad habit of talking too fast in order to get all my information in before being cut off. Unless you're brainstorming in a think thank or heading a roundtable discussion, you'll have to learn to offer your opinions and observations in bite-sized, CNN Headline News-type chunks. Mentally train yourself to speak in "sound bites" - make your point and cut out the excess filler.

As far as practicing, you need to get out and just talk to people. One place to start is your local public library. Many of them have regular discussion groups on a variety of subjects, as well as book clubs and other activities.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:33 AM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

You may try to concentrate on your facial expressions and hands, not structuring your tale. Be pleasant and engaging with your gestures. Try to get the rhythm/flow right that way and hope that the speech eventually catches up with rest of you. Shy smile instead of frustrated expression makes wonders there.
posted by Free word order! at 11:37 AM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have you thought about Toastmasters? I've never done it but I've heard great things about it. Plus if there's one in your new city it might be a good way to meet people.
posted by fermezporte at 11:49 AM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

willie11, I often struggle with this too. I use a version of the technique xo mentions above: although I don't really formulate sentences or phrases in advance, I do try to outline what I want to say in my head, and stick to that outline unless the opportunity seems right to throw in a bit of color, or the flow dictates following a tangent. It's a skill I've had to develop -- the art of listening and organizing at the same time -- but it's been well worth it. When I don't have so much I'm trying to blab out, there's more space for me to listen, and for the conversation to evolve naturally.

Also, with practice, I've found that the organizational bit doesn't actually take that long -- a second or two really, and that if I can just force myself to pause and really focus on what I want to say, it becomes easier.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 12:20 PM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might look into active listening, a technique i learned during usability training (it's great for interviews). It's basically a set of steps to improve your listening skills and to make the other person feel like you're engaged in the conversation. Some lucky people do all this stuff automatically, but if you're feeling rusty it could be a good refresher. A google search for active listening will turn up a lot of different guides.
posted by ukdanae at 12:30 PM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I consider myself a decent conversational storyteller, and my best advice is to remember that every story*--whether funny, touching, or just somewhat interesting--has a punchline. Before you start, figure out what that punchline is.

Now before you start talking, structure the story in your head so the punchline comes at the end (even if that's not how it happened chronologically). The rest of the story should build towards the punchline. One thing I like to do is open with the key details the listener will need to know to "get" the point of the story once I finish. Then, do some build-up. How much depends on the situation and the story, but I like this "filler" section to be just long enough for listeners to forget that the early details are supposed to be important, but not long enough for them to forget those details entirely.

Close with the punchline, and resist the urge to keep talking. If you find yourself compelled to keep going, take a drink or eat something until someone else picks up the conversation.

*By "every story" I mean "every story of the sort that you would tell in a social conversation," because obviously plenty of actual literature is not structured this way.
posted by Partial Law at 12:42 PM on January 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

Seconding Free word order!'s comment on using expressions - will take the liberty to add the following:

- People like visual stimulation, so the hand gestures and facial expressions that add that extra oomph to your stories or ideas.
- Delivery (read: passion). If you are excited in what you have to say, people will be excited along with you. If you smile and beam and speak with excitement and confidence because you are so excited about what you are saying you will grab people's attention. Don't be overbearing, push or boorish though.

Be happy, be excited, be energetic - you will attract an engaged audience!
posted by bitteroldman at 12:45 PM on January 19, 2008

I'd say that the best thing to do is observe the traits in other people that make you enjoy listening to them, and try to emulate those traits yourself.
posted by number9dream at 12:52 PM on January 19, 2008

I hope you feel comfortable using much of this excellent advice--if your heading for this post "Me no speaky so good no more. Please help!" is an example of your efforts to be engaging, amusing, self effacing or funny you need to rethink this type of humor. It is not going to get you any where in maintaining adult conversations. Use good English, avoid nuanced efforts at humor unless you really know your audience, speak clearly, succinctly and respect the intelligence and sensitivity of your listeners. The art of conversation is in the ability to ask and listen not tell stories. Best of Luck
posted by rmhsinc at 3:19 PM on January 19, 2008

The Vice Guide to Everything (warning: may offend) has some good points on how to have a discussion:
posted by krunk at 4:23 PM on January 19, 2008

Yeah, first of all, more questions. Second, rehearse your stories and whatnot so they go from punchline to punchline. Know what parts make people react, and get excited to deliver those.
posted by eritain at 8:10 PM on January 19, 2008

Why don't you try keeping a journal? Every night, tell the story of your day. Then when you go back and read it, you'll notice what parts are boring and what tidbits are worth repeating. You'll become a better writer through practice and this will directly influence your ability to tell a story out loud. May not work for everyone but it works for me.
posted by smeater44 at 10:03 PM on January 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

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