It’s not a secret:  the best conversationalists are rarely the ones with their mouths open.

Your wittiest friends likely have great powers of observation, and those people you most admire because they always seem to know the perfect thing to say probably really said very little in those sparkling conversations you are recalling so vividly in your mind.

Celeste Headlee recently delivered a lively and straightforward TED talk offering tips for having a great conversation.  I liked her reminders because they draw on her background as an interviewer, and the skills she’s naturally developed in that area and plumbed for her talk are the sort that are invaluable for anyone taking on a writing project, from a three-minute speech or presentation to a full-length novel or memoir.  Check it out here:

Many of her tips revolve around the art of listening well—in fact, this is the skill she herself deems most important. And of course, she’s right.  We learn nothing when we are speaking, or interrupting, or mindlessly parroting back the exact words we think we just heard.  Active listening involves not just hearing, but seeing, and interpreting as well.  Excellent listeners tend to…

  1. Clarify what they hear the other person say, often by paraphrasing in their own words, after a response like, “let me be sure I understood you correctly.…”
  2. Interpret what they hear, and respond with an explanation of the implications of the information they’ve just gathered.
  3. Avoid the outdated advice of the 1970’s “active listening” model, in which people simply repeat back exactly what they’ve just heard, since this often causes the listener to miss the true point of the speaker.
  4. Validate what they hear. They receive the input with respect and enthusiasm, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it, maintaining the speaker’s dignity by demonstrating that they are engaged and attentive to what’s being said.
  5. Resist the temptation to interrupt. It’s human nature to want to put yourself and your ideas into the equation, by relating your own similar experiences. Don’t do it.  It’s not as important as you think, and will stop the flow of the speaker’s train of thought. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is convinced that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
  6. Master body language cues—both given and received! Empathetic listeners will often mimic a speaker’s body language to demonstrate that they’ve tuned in to the spoken message by furrowing a brow, lowering their eyes, or tilting their head in concert with the speaker. They also give the speaker direct eye contact during the majority of the conversation, and lean forward to show they are engaged and interested.  They tend to turn their bodies toward the speaker, and nod their heads, as the message unfolds. Interestingly, women apparently nod their heads whether or not they agree with the speaker’s message, so some men may assume that a woman agrees with them when she actually doesn’t if she overdoes the nodding!
  7. Ask open-ended questions. You don’t want to pose questions that can be simply answered by a yes or no if your goal is to encourage deeper communication. Questions that require some interpretation, such as “what do you think was meant by that?” or “How did that affect your thinking?” are great for probing deeper. Your objective should always be to get the speaker to talk as much as possible.

The art of conversation lies in listening.” Malcolm Forbes said that.  I’ll bet Celeste Headlee would agree.  I know I do.

I recently received a  panicked phone call from a potential client that went something like this:

“Hey, I need some help.  The wife of a colleague of mine asked me to delivery a eulogy at his funeral.  But see, I can’t think of anything I can say about this guy that isn’t….well, anything appropriate  for mixed company, you know?  So I told her no.  But now I’m wondering if maybe that was the wrong thing to do.  What do you think?”

I gave the man my opinion, which was that the family that had asked him to perform this task had given him an honor, likely after careful consideration, and that the request  was not something to be dismissed lightly.

I was a bit taken aback when my caller later informed me that the fellow was not quite dead yet, so there was no rush to prepare the material–in fact, they’d had lunch just last week….!

The point is, that request was made because the family was entrusting him to honor his colleague’s memory, and they chose him for a reason. So the gracious thing to do is accept, despite any misgivings about not having the right words to say or thoughts to share.  Or your fears about public speaking .

Preparing and delivering a  eulogy doesn’t have to be a biography, it doesn’t have to be a resume, it doesn’t necessarily have to be sombre, and it certainly doesn’t have to be long;  it simply should touch the audience, help them to share in some memories, and to celebrate what was good in the deceased’s life.   And often that means  sharing what the person meant to you.

You’ve probably already guessed where I”m going with my advice:  tell a story! Illustrate a quality or trait or experience of that person by sharing a story about him or her,  ideally, one in which you are involved. Since most people in the audience were familiar, at least peripherally, with the deceased, you will have their rapt attention if you can tell them something about the person–a humorous anecdote, trait, interest or good deed–that they don’t already know.

Here is Tom Hanks, conversationally and affectionately relating a story at the memorial for Michael Clarke Duncan:

And if you can’t think of a firsthand story to relate, here are some ideas that may help :

  • talk to a close family member or friend..anyone who was important to the deceased
  • for a close family member, pull out old photo albums, walk around their house or garden, go through some old letters or emails you may possess
  • make some notes about special moments you had together or feelings about the person that  come to mind
  • if it’s not a family member, think about how and when and where you and that person become close
  • think about what you or others admired most about this person
  • think about what you will miss most

Once you have made some notes and have some stories and memories to share, decide on what quality it is about the person that you will focus on or illustrate the most.   You may not be the only speaker and you can’t cover everything;  what is the point you especially want to people to remember? Perhaps, like Tom Hanks, you can illustrate a character trait from youth that stands in charming counterpoint to the kind of adult the person you are remembering eventually became.

My caller was concerned that he could not come up with any memories that were not a little off-colour.  Similarly, people often agonize when they need to eulogize a person who was notoriously difficult, or troubled. But your job as a eulogist is to celebrate a life, and to highlight the best qualities or talents of that person .  Now is not the time to sit in judgement, and remember, too, that those listening are not there to judge you.  If the person was difficult, it’s likely those in the audience already know it and don’t need you to remind them.

If poetry is your thing or lyrical or metaphorical language comes naturally to you, by all means, incorporate some into your piece. But if not, a warm, conversational,  tone should put both you and the listeners at ease, and help keep boredom at bay.

So, if asked to speak at a funeral or memorial service, take a deep breath and then

  • Gather your memories, and write them down
  • Compose a story (or a couple) that you will tell, conversationally–one that illustrates your relationship or the qualities of your subject that you wish to highlight
  • Remember that you’ve got an entirely sympathetic audience, so relax and let them support you as you speak by looking out directly at your audience, and at individuals you know will empathize with your words. (Remember too that they will understand if you become emotional.)
  • Keep it brief:  one elegant paragraph, one memory is enough if that’s all you’ve got! Look what Tom Hanks did with one remembered story!

I’ve come to realize that excellent storytelling has become a bit of an obsession for me.  The more I work with both novices and professionals on delivering great speeches and presentations, the more I work on the development of content for both print and electronic media, and the more I continue to work with authors on their novels, both new and old, the more it comes home to me that good storytelling suffuses every part of my life….and probably yours too.  We are all hard-wired to respond to a good story; it helps our mind make the theoretical concrete, it engages our emotions and complements the analytical side of our brain, it helps us understand the world around us and connect with other human beings.  Tellingly, a good story can also help us be assured that we are not alone; that our thoughts or actions, which we fear might be strange, or misplaced or plain “wrong”, are actually echoed by zillions of others out there in the universe.

So the ability to tell a good story is a life skill.  It’s not just for business people, or comedians, or fund-raisers or salespeople.  It’s crucial for every one of us.

In this TED talk, The Secret Structure of  Great Talks, by Nancy Duarte, she argues that the way an idea is communicated can change the world.  She talks about the magical quality of story structure, whether it be Aristotle’s three-part or Freytag’s five-part dramatic structure, and goes on to analyze the structure of two great speeches, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and Steve Jobs’s Introduction of the I-Phone speech, using her own developed mapping sequence.

Following her own advice, she sells her idea but stepping back and looking at life as a story, in which we all encounter road blocks and make choices to either be defeated by difficulties or choose to overcome them.

There are lessons for speechwriters, presenters, raconteurs, and ordinary folks who just want to improve their social skills in this talk.  Check it out and share your thoughts or tips on good storytelling.