Not So Small Talk

Lost for words at Christmas parties or stuck for safe topics of conversation to bring up over the turkey? Author Catherine Blyth explains how to rediscover the art of conversation so you'll never give someone the silent treatment again.

When we each get presented with a three-tiered cake stand filled with luscious treats, author Catherine Blyth and I breathe back giggles.

We might have said no to the champagne offered with our English high tea, but these towering cake stands are certainly no advertisement for restraint.

Here to talk about her book, The Art of Conversation, Catherine eyes the feast with pleasure.

"I've never had a proper afternoon tea before," she grins. "Have you?". And instantly we're bonding over treacle tarts and pots of Earl Grey tea.

During 18 months of research, Catherine has clearly picked up more than a few tips on how to have a good conversation.

She's so warm, generous with compliments and fascinated with my opinion that I have to keep reminding myself that I'm the one whose supposed to be doing the interview.

Describing The Art of Conversation as a guide to 'a neglected pleasure',

Catherine says that you don't need a thousand anecdotes up your sleeve to be a terrific conversationalist.

"Being an amazing entertainer isn't the aim of a conversation; it's about conversing."

As the author points out in her book, the word conversation comes from the Latin word 'conversare' which means 'to turn around often'.

"The idea is that a conversation should involve an exchange of ideas, rather than just being an exhalation of your thoughts," she says with a wry smile.


As we nibble our cucumber sandwiches, Catherine tells me about the moment that convinced her to write the book.

"I was at a dinner party and sitting next to a man who talked about himself and how wonderful he was for hours.

He asked me one question which was, 'Where do you live?'. It was a snobbery thing. He obviously wanted to know my postcode. Then he told me he'd written a book about presentation skills, and that I should read it..."

She lets out a peal of laughter.

In her expose of the secrets behind great conversation, Catherine refers to every great talker from famous actors to daytime TV presenters.

"One of my favourite quotes was made by Queen Victoria's grand-daughter," she says.

"After speaking to two British Prime Ministers one evening, this young lady apparently said, 'When I left the drawing room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England'. This really summed things up for me."

She continues: "Perhaps the biggest eye opener though, when researching this book, was the importance of listening. Intuitively we all know that listening is an activity, but you don't really think about it. So many people think that conversation is about talking all the time, and if you don't gabble it's all been a disaster."


Acccording to the queen of chat, a healthy dose of relaxation is also crucial to good conversation.

"People measure a conversation's success by how enthralled they were by what the other person said," she explains.

"But it's hard to feel engaged when you're talking to a stranger because you're focused on how awkward you feel. That's why we enjoy talking to our friends and think those conversations are better."

Catherine says she find out what interests her about the other person, rather than thinking about herself.

"This strategy means you're more likely to find something interesting for you both to talk about and it moves the focus away from the fact you're strangers."

She adds that most of us are also rather suspicious of small talk.

"People often think that there's something inherently insincere about having a light chat but that doesn't have to be true. And if you go in thinking, 'Oh I'm going to meet someone new, how lovely' and not 'I hate mortals', it'll go a lot better. Be invested and and have an air of excitement. Pay attention and be interested in the other person. Boredom is just an absence of interest. If you don't go in looking to be interested, it ain't going to work."


Catherine has a very expressive face. Regularly punctuating her stories with dramatically raised eyebrows, pouts, and loud, clear laughter (despite the fact that she's spoken to 16 journalists already today) she encourages me to believe that she utterly absorbed by my every word.

"It's very easy to sit placidly and not transmit emotion," she says.

"Especially in a long term relationship. I went to a talk by Bill Clinton. He was over an hour late, everyone was livid, but within a few seconds everyone was hanging on his every word. He just emits, radiates, utter sincerity. Can you imagine?" She grins at me, raises an eyebrow, and starts on another cake.


Although Catherine makes conversation seem easy, when I suggest that people can feel stuck for something to say, Catherine looks indignant and begins to gesture wildly.

"There's always something to talk about. Look around. There's always 15,000 things available. And it's important to remember that there's nothing wrong with silence. I think my greatest failing is wittering on; I'm sure I'd be a much better communicator if I knew when to stop."

Catherine says that one her worst conversations stemmed from nervous, verbal diarrhoea.

"I remember I once had a very silent boss. He only ever attended two social events and I happened to be sitting next to him at one. He just wasn't talking so I ended up filling the silence, and going off on an tangent about another publisher who'd recently had a heart attack. I said, 'I wonder if had anything to do with his taste in white pointy shoes'. And then I looked down at his feet. You can guess what he was wearing. That ticks every box - random, mad and embarrassing."

She also admits that, occasionally, even she has been stuck for words.

"I was a journalist doing my first assignment for a gossip column and had to interview Jeremy Irons. I managed to introduce myself and then I just froze. Although I'd done all my research I had no idea how to break the ice! Eventually I fled. It was mortally embarrassing."


Nervous? Catherine Blyth says to remember these five points.

It's not about you: prepare to listen. Watch other people's faces, the clock by which to measure turns on the floor.

Every utterance contains the seeds for further discussion (except, possibly, 'Fine').

This is the fount of inspiration.

Direct conversation to the other person' interests; you'll soon find out what interests you about them.

Review topics as you might before a news quiz. One headline; one trivial; one gossipy.

:: The Art of Conversation by Catherine Blyth is published in hardback by John Murray, RRP $24.99.


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