I travel this weekend to France. After being back at Automattic, the company where I work, for over two years, I will finally get to meet my teammates in person. I drank wine last night to train for the week.
On our meetup, we’re going to give flash talks: 3-4 minute talks on any topic of our choosing. Some people hate these talks — getting up in front of people and public speaking and all that — but I love them. I don’t necessarily love giving them, but I love learning about my coworkers through theirs. At our all-company meetup, I’ve watched flash talks on how to succeed in competitive eating, the basics of beatboxing, and how to hug your coworker… not awkwardly.
What I haven’t seen yet, and what I’d love to see a flash talk on, is how to be good at conversation. Some people are really good at conversation, at keeping things interesting, at going deep, at making sure everyone feels included, and making sure no one person — including themselves — dominates. This would be a great flash talk at the beginning of a week-long meetup with people you’ve only met via video calls and written text but are suddenly sharing space and meals and every hour of your day with.
I read a small book about conversation recently, an old book (1912): Conversation: What to Say and How to Say It by Mary Greer Conklin. Not surprisingly, a key element of good conversation is the ability to listen.
A person who converses well also listens well.Mary Greer Conklin, Conversation
Conversation is not one-sided; if you do not listen in conversation, then you are telling your company “I don’t care what your thoughts are on this or what you have to say.” Someone who talks without listening, who talks only about themselves, or shows no curiosity about their companions is not very interesting to converse with.
Conklin also notes that wearing your heart on your sleeve, which I read as being authentic and open in your feelings about things, is a point in your favor in conversation. I can see that. Being open about what you care about creates pathways to exploration or discussion. At the same time, Conklin advises that tact is essential, as is having a sense of humor about yourself, because in being authentic and vulnerable, you will get poked.
What struck me as I read this little book is how similar good conversation is to good writing. Authenticity, vulnerability, and a topic everyone has knowledge about are essential to both.
The topic which ought to be always interesting is the discussion of human character and human motives.Mary Greer Conklin, Conversation
This is the topic I’m most fascinated by, in conversation, in reading, in life: I can’t get enough of what it is that drives people to do the things they do.
But when it comes to both conversation and writing, you never know if it’s safe to be authentic. It’s scary to be vulnerable. And, for me, finding a topic for either becomes impossible the moment I think, “What should I talk about? What should I write about?”, and then I blank.
So anyway, I hope someone gives a flash talk about conversation. Given that there are only 12 of us, I doubt it will happen, but I can wish.