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The Art Of Conversation:
Introduction To Conversation
Principles Of Conversation
If You Can Talk Well
Culture By Conversation
Rules For Conversation
Reflections On Conversation
Happiness Through Conversation
Conversation And Courtesy

If You Can Talk Well

( Originally Published 1913 )

There is no other one thing which enables us to make so good an impression, especially upon those who do not know us thoroughly, as the ability to converse well.

To be a good conversationalist, able to interest people, to rivet their attention, to draw them to you naturally, by the very superiority of your conversational ability, is to be the possessor of a very great accomplishment, one which is superior to all others. It not only helps you to make a good impression upon strangers, it also helps you to make and keep friends. It opens doors and softens hearts. It makes you in teresting in all sorts of company. It helps you to get on in the world. It sends you clients, patients, customers. It helps you into the best society, even though you are poor.

A man who can talk well, who has the art of putting things in an attractive way, who can interest others immediately by his power of speech, has a very great advantage over one who may know more than he, but who cannot express himself with ease or eloquence.

You may be a fine singer, and yet travel around the world without having an opportunity of showing your accomplishment, or without guessing your specialty. But wherever you go, and in whatever society you are, no matter what your station in life may be, you talk.

You may be a painter, you may have spent years with great masters, and yet, unless you have very marked ability so that your pictures are hung in the salons or in the great art galleries, comparatively few people will ever see them. But if you are an artist in conversation, everyone who comes in contact with you will see your life picture, which you have been painting ever since you began to talk. Everyone knows whether you are an artist or a bungler...

Nothing else will indicate your fineness or coarseness of culture, your breeding or lack of it, so quickly as your conversation. It will tell your whole life's story. What you say, and how you say it, will betray all your secrets, will give the world your true measure.

There is no other accomplishment or acquirement which you can use so constantly and effectively, which will give so much pleasure to your friends, as fine conversation. There is no doubt that the gift of language was intended to be a much greater accomplishment than the majority of us have ever made of it.

Most of us are bunglers in our conversation, because we do not make an art of it; we do not take the trouble or pains to learn to talk well. We do not read enough or think enough. Most of us express ourselves in sloppy, slipshod English, because it is so much easier to do so than it is to think before we speak, to make an effort to express ourselves with elegance, ease, and power.

Poor conversers excuse themselves for not trying to improve by saying that "good talkers are born, not made." We might as well say that good lawyers, good physicians, or good merchants are born, not made. None of them would ever get very far without hard work. This is the price of all achievement that is of value...

Pew people think very much about how they are going to express themselves. They use the first words that come to them. They do not think of forming a sentence so that it will have beauty, brevity, transparency, power. The words flow from their lips helter-skelter, with little thought of arrangement or order.

Now and then we meet a real artist in conversation, and it is such a treat and delight that we wonder why the most of us should be such bunglers in our conversation, that we should make such a botch of the medium of communication between human beings, when it is capable of being made the art of arts...

I have met a dozen persons in my lifetime who have given me such a glimpse of its superb possibilities that it has made all other arts seem comparatively unimportant to me...

In olden times the art of conversation reached a much higher standard than that of today. The deterioration is due to the complete revolution in the conditions of modern civil ization. Formerly people had almost no other way of communicating their thoughts than by speech. Knowledge of all kinds was disseminated almost wholly through the spoken word. There were no great daily newspapers, no magazines or periodicals of any kind.

The great discoveries of vast wealth in the precious minerals, the new world opened up by inventions and discoveries, and the great impetus to ambition have changed all this. In this lightning-express age, in these strenuous times, when everybody has the mania to attain wealth and position, we no longer have time to reflect with deliberation, and to develop our powers of conversation. In these great newspaper and periodical days, when everybody can get for one or a few cents the news and information which it has cost thousands of dollars to collect, everybody sits behind the morning sheet or is buried in a book or magazine. There is no longer the same need of communicating thought by the spoken word, as there was formerly.

Oratory is becoming a lost art for the same reason. Printing has become so cheap that even the poorest homes can get more reading for a few dollars than kings and noblemen could afford in the Middle Ages.

It is a rare thing to find a polished conversationalist today. So rare is it to hear one speaking exquisite English, and using a superb diction, that it is indeed a luxury.

Good reading, however, will not only broaden the mind and give new ideas, but it will also increase one's vocabulary, and that is a great aid to conversation. Many people have good thoughts and ideas, but they cannot express them because of the poverty of their vocabulary. They have not words enough to clothe their ideas and make them attractive. They talk around in a circle, repeat and repeat, because, when they want a particular word to convey their exact meaning, they cannot find it...

Many people-and this is especially true of scholars seem to think that the great desideratum in life is to get as much valuable information into the head as possible. But it is just as important to know how to give out knowledge in a palatable manner as to acquire it. You may be a profound scholar, you may be well read in history and in politics, you may be wonderfully well posted in science, literature, and art, and yet, if your knowledge is locked up within you, you will always be placed at a great disadvantage.

Locked-up ability may give the individual some satisfaction, but it must be exhibited, expressed in some attractive, way, before the world will appreciate it or give credit for it. It does not matter how valuable the rough diamond may be, no explaining, no describing its marvels of beauty within, and its great value, would avail; nobody would appreciate it until it was ground and polished and the light let into its depths to reveal its hidden brilliancy. Conversation is to the man what the cutting of the diamond is to the stone. The grinding does not add anything to the diamond. It merely reveals its wealth. How little parents realize the harm they are doing their children by allowing them to grow up ignorant of or indifferent to the marvelous possibilities in the art of conversation! In the majority of homes, children are allowed to mangle the English language in a most painful way.

Nothing else will develop the brain and character more than the constant effort to talk well, intelligently, interestingly, upon all sorts of topics. There is a splendid discipline in the constant effort to express one's thoughts in clear language and in an interesting manner. We know people who are such superb conversers that no one would ever dream that they have not had the advantages of the higher schools. Many a college graduate has been silenced and put to shame by people who have never even been to a high school, but who have studied the art of self-expression.

The school and the college employ the student comparatively a few hours a day for a few years; conversation is a training in a perpetual school. Many get the best part of their education in this school.

Conversation is a great ability discoverer, a great revealer of possibilities and resources. It stimulates thought wonder fully. We think more of ourselves if we can talk well, if we can interest and hold others. The power to do so increases our self-respect, our self-confidence.

No man knows what he really possesses until he makes his best effort to express to others what is in him. Then the avenues of the mind fly open, the faculties are on the alert. Every good converser has felt a power come to him from the listener which he never felt before, and which often stimulates and inspires to fresh endeavor. The mingling of thought with thought, the contact of mind with mind, develops new powers, as the mixing of two chemicals produces a new third substance.

To converse well one must listen well also. This means one must hold oneself in a receptive attitude...

One cause for our conversational decline is a lack of sympathy. We are too selfish, too busily engaged in our own welfare, and wrapped up in our own little world, too intent upon our own self-promotion to be interested in others. No one can make a good converser who is not sympathetic. You must be able to enter into another's life, to live it with the other person, in order to be a good talker or a good listener... Lincoln was master of the art of making himself interesting to everybody he met. He put people at ease with his stories and jokes, and made them feel so completely at home in his presence that they opened up their mental treasures to him without reserve. Strangers were always glad to talk with him, because he was so cordial and quaint, and always gave more than he got.

A sense of humour such as Lincoln had is, of course, a great addition to one's conversational powers. But not everyone can be funny; and, if you lack the sense of humour, you will make yourself ludicrous by attempting to be so.

A good conversationalist, however, is not too serious. He does not deal too much with facts, no matter how important. Pacts, statistics, weary. Vivacity is absolutely necessary. Heavy, conversation bores; too light, disgusts.

Therefore, to be a good conversationalist you must be spontaneous, buoyant, natural, sympathetic, and must show a spirit of good will. You must feel a spirit of helpfulness, and must enter heart and soul into things which interest others. You must get the attention of people and hold it by interesting them, and you can only interest them by a warm sympathy -a real friendly sympathy. If you are cold, distant, and unsympathetic, you cannot hold their attention...

You must bring your listener close to you, must open your heart wide, and exhibit a broad, free nature, and an open mind. You must be responsive, so that he will throw wide open every avenue of his nature and give you free access to his heart of hearts.

If a man is a success anywhere, it ought to be in his personality, in his power to express himself in strong, effective, interesting language. He should not be obliged to give a stranger an inventory of his possessions in order to show that he has achieved something. A greater wealth should flow from his lips, and express itself in his manner.

No amount of natural ability, or education or good clothes, no amount of money, will make you appear well if you cannot express yourself in good language.

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