Don’t be an old bore: The secrets to holding compelling conversation

Are you comfortable with the way you talk? From the subjects we choose to the tone we take, every aspect of conversation can shape how others see us, so there’s always room for improvement.

A recent TED Talk by speech expert Julian Treasure reveals some wonderful, easy-to-overlook guidance on how to use your voice to the best of its ability. Here are some of our favourite tips:

The bad habits to avoid:

  • Gossip: this marks a person as untrustworthy; if they’re willing to gossip about somebody else, they may seem just as likely later to gossip about you.
  • Judging: If you know you’re being judged by the other person, it can be extraordinarily difficult to hold an engaging conversation.
  • Negativity: At certain points in our life, it can be extremely easy to default to a “yes, but…” in response to any compliment or positive observation. This can only be worked around with conscious effort.
  • Complaining: Treasure describes this as “viral misery… it’s not spreading sunshine and lightness in the world”.
  • Making excuses: This suggests an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions.
  • Exaggeration: According to Treasure, this “demeans our language… for example, if I see something that really is awesome, what do I call it?” He suggests this is effectively lying, and none of us want to listen to liars.
  • Confusing facts with opinions: by stating personal beliefs as if they were a universal truth, it leaves very little room for somebody else’s point of view.
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The good habits to embrace:

  • Honesty: be clear and speak the truth.
  • Authenticity: know who you are and be true to yourself; don’t present yourself as somebody you’re not.
  • Integrity: do what your say; present yourself as somebody trustworthy.
  • Love: “I don’t mean romantic love,” says Treasure, “but I do mean wishing people well”. This keeps the three other good habits under control. For instance, a little love and well-wishing will prevent you being too honest if somebody asks if they look fat.

The tone you should take:

Be aware of your pitch. We vote for people with lower-register voices, because we believe this is a sign of authority.

But pitch isn’t everything; there’s also timbre, which is the warmth and smoothness of your voice. A quick Google search will give you plenty of breathing and posture exercises that will help you find a timbre that best sums up who you are.

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Another important factor is the “sing-song” – the variation in tone that brings extra meaning to your words.

“People who speak all on one note are really quite hard to listen to”, says Treasure.

“Also, we have repetitive prosody now coming in, where every sentence ends as if it were a question when it’s actually not a question, it’s a statement?”

Know when to pay attention to your voice:

When excited, it can be natural to want to talk louder and faster – but this can backfire and be seen as antisocial, as it leaves little room for others in the conversation. It takes conscious correction to lower the pace and volume; a technique that can ultimately be far more engaging.

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Not every moment needs to be filled with “um”s and “ah”s. Treasure reminds us that there’s nothing wrong with silence. “It can be very powerful”.

Ultimately, it’s about knowing when your voice needs a little extra attention and care, says Treasure. “It might be proposing marriage, asking for a raise, a wedding speech. Whatever it is, if it’s really important, you owe it to yourself to look at this toolbox and the engine that it’s going to work on, and no engine works well without being warmed up.”

How do you feel about your voice and conversation skills? Which of these habits – good and bad – resonate the most with you?