Say More, Talk Less: 5 Ways To Better Your Conversation Skills

By Alex McGuire

In our culture of immediate gratification and 140 characters, our attention spans are sinking to alarming levels.

Go anywhere on the Internet and you’ll find that the most liked, tweeted and shared articles are the shortest and simplest ones. A 2008 study found that people only read about 18 percent of every webpage, and articles must be 110 words or less for people to read half the words.

Thanks to less stimulating web content and the tendency to bury our heads in our iPhones (among other things), we are starting to struggle with the basics of genuine conversation.

Talking to others face-to-face has become a burden many people will avoid at all costs. With no screen to filter our dialogue, we often think we’re more vulnerable and susceptible to failure for absolutely no reason at all.

Being seasoned in the art of small talk makes us interesting and pleasant to be around. Having a vast repertoire of topics to discuss keeps people guessing about what makes us tick, which makes maintaining relationships a much more enriching experience.

Here are five habits to cultivate in order to start talking good -- I mean, talking well.

Keep up with the news and have opinions on it.

People bicker over the news all the time, and it’s always an endless race to be correct about politics, sports, whatever. We’re not obsessed with being right; we’re obsessed with being absolutely right. In order to attain that frivolous label, we have to understand all angles of an issue and determine with which one we personally align.

Let’s say you meet someone and start talking about Ebola’s threat to the United States. The other person argues that it’s only a matter of time before the virus spreads to critical levels. You disagree, saying Ebola is fairly difficult to contract and, therefore, the risk of it spreading is low.

“Why do you think that?” your opponent asks. “Uh, well, because that’s what the news says,” you diffidently reply.

If you believe in something, you should know something about how it works. Don’t just spout off the headline of a Washington Post story and call it a day.

Listen to the other person; don’t just wait to chime in.

There’s a great scene in "Fight Club" in which the narrator, played by Edward Norton, meets Marla Singer for the first time at a support group.

Although both are healthy, they attend the groups anyway because, as Edward Norton says, “When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you.” Marla cuts him off, adding, “Instead of just waiting for their turn to speak?”

We’re all guilty of doing this. Other people say something we don’t like or can’t relate to, so we immediately stop caring altogether. Our logic is that our input is superior and will save them from rattling off more incoherent nonsense.

The only way to get a good dialogue started is to listen. It’s essential that we dissect pieces of what the other person is saying in order to generate a good reply. The person might be wrong, but we have to actually hear him or her in order to subtly explain the alternatives.

We don’t live in the "Fight Club" universe. In one-on-one conversation, I sincerely hope it doesn’t take someone having a disease for the other to genuinely listen. We become smarter by listening to others, not listening to ourselves talk.

View TED Talks and try to emulate the speakers.

I’m sure there are many of you out there who, like me, had bad first impressions of TED Talks. I was assigned to watch tons of them throughout college, and there was nothing I wanted to do less than watch 20-minute videos on intellectual concepts absolutely irrelevant to my life.

Similar to the news, TED speakers elaborate on issues that indirectly affect us all the time. However, the speakers take the issues one step further by making entertaining cases and offering solutions that can initially seem radical, but are fundamental in nature.

Introversion can have extraordinary results, and vulnerability can enrich our lives with joy and creativity. These brilliant researchers and authors convey their arguments with tremendous enthusiasm, acerbic wit and, most importantly, plenty of evidence.

Of course, I didn’t fully appreciate them until I wasn’t forced to watch them anymore. These presentations are the perfect models for crafting effective arguments, which is the ultimate reward of honing good conversation skills.

Watch popular TV shows.

Yes, I’m serious. TV is all anyone our age ever talks about, and we need to be able to contribute to the discussions on why Frank Underwood is a sweet guy deep down, or what Carcosa means in "True Detective."

Good television makes for good conversation because the best shows ever made are the ones that speak volumes about the human condition. "The Wire" is an unpolished look at the American city, exploring its most prominent institutions and the massive dysfunction that stems from their intersections.

"Breaking Bad" analyzes the far-reaching consequences of our choices and the horrible lengths men will go to provide for their families. Similarly, "The Sopranos" studies existentialism and how we determine the course of our lives through our own decisions.

TV isn’t as mind-numbing as we thought it was. We’re in the Golden Age of television, and it’d be a shame to not appreciate it while it’s here.

Meet as many people as you can.

We’ve heard it a million times before. We heard it after losing that basketball game in fourth grade, and we heard it while prepping for the SAT: Practice makes perfect.

The only way to become a more fluent communicator is by talking to as many new people as possible. Making friends and forming relationships exposes you to countless new experiences, personalities, ideas and everything in-between.

The greatest part is that we don’t have to try to meet new people. It happens naturally when we constantly ensconce ourselves in a socially comfortable environment. When that happens naturally, conversation flows naturally.

Photo Courtesy: We Heart It