Management Tactic #38: Fodder

will-ferrellStarting a conversation comes naturally to some people. I am not one of those people. The best way I know to start a conversation at an event, reception, or happy hour, is to introduce someone (even if it’s someone you just met) to someone else. It also gives you a chance to relearn that person’s name if you already forgot it.

Although initiating a conversation is a struggle for me, one thing that I can write with confidence about is how to sustain a conversation. A lot of conversations can dry up very quickly if the wrong topics are broached. I could write a dissertation on those topics. Rather than focus on the negative, today I want to discuss a few simple, specific topics that can enliven and sustain pretty much any conversation at a social gathering. These topics gravitate around the idea of creating fodder, a wealth of topics to spark unique conversations and to fall back upon when some of those conversations fizzle.

  1. Pets. You can talk about pets even if you don’t have pets–if the latter is true, talk about how you’re thinking about getting a pet. Although, I’d stress that the key to broaching this topic is first to ask if anyone has pets–don’t begin by talking about your kitten or dog or titmouse. First, pose the question, “Do you have pets?” One of two things will happen: One, if that person has a pet, they will light up and immediately start babbling away about their pet. It’s a universal truth that anyone who owns a pet absolutely loves to talk about their pet, and you just gave them a personal invitation to do so. Then, at the right time (after 5-10 minutes of listening), tell a story about your pet. This is key. Contribute more than just, “Oh, my kitten is so cute.” Tell the person that your cat is so cute because he loves to knock dark chocolate M&Ms off your desk and lick the candy coating off of them. This gives the other person fodder (cats, what you do at your desk, milk chocolate versus dark chocolate, warnings about dietary restrictions for animals). The other situation that could happen is if the person does not own a pet; in this case, don’t bore them with the details of your animal. Move on to number 2.
  2. The Weekend. This is a recent favorite of mine. It gives a person a specific time frame to think about, which is easier to respond to than a more general question like “What do you do in your free time?” It’s so easy, and you can ask it on every day of the week except for Wednesday. On Thursday, Friday, or Saturday (lunch or earlier), ask, “What are you up to this weekend?” On Sunday (night), Monday, or Tuesday, ask, “What were you up to this weekend?” I like “up to” over “did.” It plants the seed in the persons head that they were actually up to something–insinuating a cleverness or mischievousness–instead of merely doing something. Various conversation topics can branch out from there; if they say they’re going to a Heartless Bastards concert, you immediately have a ton of fodder (Heartless Bastards songs, what their music is similar to if you don’t know them, bands with weird names, CDs versus iTunes, what you’re doing that prevents you from going to the concert). If the person replies, “Not much,” that probably means they’re taking it easy that weekend. Don’t make them feel like a loser. Tell them that you totally understand, that it’s been a long week…and then let them tell you why it was a long week for them. Conversely, if you aren’t up to anything that weekend, you can mention something that you’ve been meaning to catch up on–a book, a movie, quality time with your titmouse. If you find yourself saying that you want to “catch up on sleep” (a big mistake to say, but everybody makes it now and then), you need to immediately say specific things that you’ve been doing that have been causing you to miss sleep. Last, the one thing you absolutely do not want to say is, “So, what are we doing this weekend?” (or anything that insinuates that you want to be invited to what other people are doing). This immediately puts people on the defensive–no one likes a self-inviter. Unless they already really like you or are really attractive, they’re going to clam up about their weekend schedule. If you accidentally say something like that, casually mention the things you’re doing that conflict with that person’s schedule, and move on to number 3.
  3. Sports. This may seem obvious, especially among guys, but you must understand the many nuances of approaching sports as a conversation topic. You can’t just say, “How about them Cardinals?” and expect conversation to blossom. The best way to talk about sports is to know a little about every sport and a lot about a few sports. I say that because about 99% of the people in the world have an interest in some sport, but it’s likely that their sport of choice isn’t the same as yours. You have about three sentences to find out what that sport is before they lose interest. Start out very specific and branch out from there: “Did you watch the Manchester United game last night?” If they act confused, immediately move on to, “Oh, are you not a soccer fan?” This (a) lets them know what sport you’re talking about so they don’t feel dumb, and (b) it gives them the chance to say what they are a fan of. Usually you’re fine after this point. But if they mention a sport with which you’re barely familiar (croquet, curling, titmouse racing), you’ll need one more sentence to really start the conversation: “I don’t know much about cricket, but I had a ton of fun watching [insert former English colony] play [insert another former English colony] at a pub in Dublin last year.” That may be the one and only thing you know about cricket, but you just showed interest and provided the person a wealth of fodder (how to play cricket, those teams, unfairness of colonization, pubs, Dublin, travel, watching sports at bars).

Memorize these topics and try them out today at any social event, no matter how well you know the people at the event. I guarantee you they might work.

(Also, I want to note that although I’ve enjoyed both seasons of the Pickup Artist, I don’t ascribe to the philosophy that one must lie to have an engaging conversation. On that show, the pickup artists tell the students to make up stories about “capers” and “girl fights” to spark conversation. You don’t have to be a particularly interesting person to have something to talk about–rather than create the foundation of a conversation on a lie, start with one of the topics about and keep it real. Your conversational mind will work much better as the minutes pass if it’s doesn’t have to create water from wine every other sentence.)

Also see: 

Seven Traits of Highly Effective Leaders

#22: Alcohol