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How to have better conversations, for PR professionals or anyone else

We assume that some just naturally have the gift of the gab -- but being able to begin and hold an interesting conversation is actually a learnable skill.

Being able to read and write well is one thing -- but effective communication and the art of conversation isn’t often taught to us. When reporters get 100 pitches a day, PR professionals have to learn fast how to leave a lasting impression after a conversation.

In this episode of the Mind Meld vlog, I spoke to fellow communication pro William Johnson about how to communicate better and have more interesting conversations.

As the Founder of the Vancouver Tech Journal, and previous Director of Marketing & Communications at Innovate BC, William is a regular writer and speaker in Vancouver’s tech community -- and I’ve seen him captivate many an audience.

In this episode we share the tips and strategies we both use to have better conversations and build effective communication skills to get things done. Aaaand, we’re live!

Don’t ask the obvious questions, ask the interesting ones.

I hate whenever I go to an event and people ask me, “So, what do you do?”. It’s one of those questions that make people self-conscious. Whenever I go to an event I like to ask people something like, “Why did you come here?” or “What brings you here tonight?” or “Is this the first event of these you have been to?” and that sparks up more of an interesting conversation.

When I ask these questions, I’m looking for an answer that includes why they are at the event right now. If you can go to a tech event any night of the week (pre-pandemic) then I’m curious why you’re at this specific one, and if there’s something you’re working on.

Is this event that you’re currently at a piece of the puzzle in terms of whether or not your current network can satisfy your ambitions? Or are you looking to grow your network because you need to move past the people you’re currently connected with, or make a new connection. Or are you just there for the speakers?

It’s a good way to get people to talk about themselves without broaching the more serious questions of “Who are you?” or asking them to define themselves when they might be transitioning between projects.

Build effective communication skills in your work and personal life to have better conversations, and easily progress a relationship to the next level. Find out the driving forces behind a person that others might not think to ask about.

This ties into innovative ways to get media coverage for your company. You may not have a new project or stream of funding to announce. But by asking the right questions to the right people, we’re often able to find that key nugget of information. Then you can turn that into a CEO profile or some other foundational marketing or PR piece.

Do you have a tip for feeling and seeming natural when you’re onstage talking to a large group of people?

Back in the day I was giving presentations on why university students should get a LinkedIn account - I guess it was before everyone just had one naturally. I was so nervous -- but I had to do it. And because it was part of my job, I had to keep doing it. The more you work on something, the better you get it right? The more natural it becomes to you.

You have to repeat things.There’s a great quote on this - “If you want to live a life you’ve never lived, you have to do things you’ve never done.” It’s very basic but people forget that you have to put yourself in that position over and over again, and eventually you get over it.

The other thing for me is generally when I’m speaking, I know at least one other person in the audience. Even if it’s just that one person, I almost ‘check in’ with them every few minutes and generally they’ve got a big smile on their face. It’s kind of like acknowledgement that you’re doing alright, so just keep going. Make an effort to make eye contact with people you know for positive reinforcement. It’s just a conversation with your folks.

Don’t picture the audience naked. What could be more awkward than a room full of naked people? Horrible advice, we think.

An audience or an individual may feel less threatening when you’ve established some kind of rapport with them. It’s like trying to have better conversations, on a large scale -- how can you connect with them?

Try disarm them with some light humour. If you can get everyone to laugh early on, you feel more accepted. You feel more like you’re among friends. It doesn’t have to be stand-up comedy. But the audience is on your side.

What about a less fun conversation? How do you deliver criticism?

I call my approach an ‘open-faced sandwich’. First you layer a piece of bread, which is a compliment. Then you drop in the protein -- usually this is the best part of a sandwich, but in this case it’s the bad news. It’s what needs to be improved.

And then I sort of add a flavour enhancer like salt, which is some extra positive reinforcement as an action. Recommending a good book that talks about what we’ve just discussed and has valuable advice. It’s another way for them to think of how to take action and think about the situation at hand.

This also involves respecting your audience. Not in terms of being polite, but understand and expect that they might know as much as you, or even a little more. Assume they’re technically onboard with what you’re saying. Don’t talk at people, talk to them.

On the flipside, it’s natural to project your way of thinking onto others. We sometimes assume people know what we know, since you can’t remember what it’s like not knowing what you know now.

Know your audience to avoid under or overestimating how much they know about the topic at hand. Say, we’re pitching the launch of a new cool piece of technology. Depending on the media lists and journalists we want to target, we change how we write your press release and pitch. The approach suits the audience.

What about speaking to executives at a company? How do you approach business leaders confidently?

have better conversations speak to executives

When it comes to approaching high-powered executives -- you have to be fearless. Many circumstances beyond our control have landed us where we are, so I’m never intimidated by anyone I’m speaking to. We’re all human beings.

You’re about to enter a conversation with someone who knows something you don’t, otherwise why else are you talking to them? So, I prepare. I do research into the person, the company, into what they’ve done lately. I’m not gonna waste their time.

Ask them interesting questions. Try and ask them questions they haven’t heard before - not to catch them off guard, but just to be interesting and have better conversations.

When you watch Entertainment Tonight interviewing celebrities, asking them what it was like working with certain other celebrities, or what their movie was about, you’re bored.

These are questions that have already been asked 100 times. Think of your audience the same way. Level the playing field by being worthy and interesting. (Personally, we think our ability to have better conversations would make us great talk show hosts).

Research people before you meet them. If you’re going to an event and you can see who else is attending, have a look at their company and what you have in common. What is a relevant point of conversation? It’s not a must, but it’s a good way to help begin conversations.

Think out loud. Share ideas without the fear of being embarrassed.

You have people who are skilled in the art of conversation, where you know they're not afraid to think out loud. I think that it's harder to do these days where we're de-incentivised to think out loud because you’re taking a risk. You’re letting thoughts fly for the first time without much of a filter. But you have to have a certain amount of trust, even with people you’ve just met.

You say something and it’s out there. People can hear it and we can all inspect it, manipulate it, and now your ideas have self-expanding capabilities that you didn’t know. But because other people are contributing now. The same thing happens when I write. There’s a shitty first draft that you can play with and tweak.

Part of the incentive for this is to force yourself to be original. Try not to say the things that everybody else is saying. Don’t be scared of being a bit contentious. Make an impact.

This comes into play when writing press releases and how to pitch to journalists. A reporter isn’t interested in a story they’ve already written 500 times. We ask clients the interesting questions to get interesting answers, and eventually write something original that will capture attention and prompt discussion.

What’s the final golden nugget of conversation advice you can give?

I'll recommend a book. I feel like it's required reading for anyone in communications and marketing, and honestly anyone.

It’s called Made to Stick. It’s about how to make ideas sticky. It goes beyond that, and they actually have a framework of the things you need to think about when you’re communicating to someone. It could be a business thing, it could be a personal thing, it could be in an ad or a PR campaign.

Their framework is in an acronym that spells ‘SUCCESS’ without the last s: Be simple, unexpected, concrete, credentialed, emotional and have a story. Think about those things when you’re communicating ideas.

Looking to build effective communication skills? Subscribe to the Mind Meld PR newsletter for a monthly dose of our thoughts, coverage and PR package deals.


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