I think I’m a pretty good talker. But I’m not a great talker. The reason I know this is because my friend Kelly is a great talker. And I can’t hold a candle to him.

In this piece I want to explore what makes a good talker good and a great talker great. Here, our conclusion can be partially stated upfront: a good talker will almost always also be a good BSer. Everyone knows what BS is, of course, and the term is usually used pejoratively, more or less, for example in phrases such as “oh that’s a bunch of BS,” or “come on dude, cut the BS.” However, BS is clearly also an essential element of the talker’s toolkit (from now on we will simply use the term “talker” unless specifically delineating between a good and a great talker). BS alone though does not a great talker make. There has to be something else involved. Let’s see if we can figure out what this might be.

We will start with an example from my professional life. I work in a high school in Japan, and it’s a fairly complex place. Although a Japanese school, it also features two different international courses and over time we have welcomed a wide variety of visitors from around the world for various reasons. A few years back, we hosted a group of educators from Abu Dhabi, including at least one representative of the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Education. My boss at the time was a Japanese gentlemen who spoke decent, but not phenomenal, English. He was set to give a welcome speech to this group, and my boss loved, absolutely loved, networking and hosting visitors at our school. It was his singular passion. The higher ranked or more “prestigious” they were the better. A visiting teacher from Elton College would be treated like the Pope, accorded all of the pomp and ceremony of a royal visit. Although an inveterate networker, my boss was not a natural public speaker, and he was uncomfortable making such an important speech in English, so he asked me to write something for him. Some people might have found this request to be annoying or even insulting, but I relished it. The role of the ghostwriter is one I greatly enjoy, because it gives me a chance to slip a few little things in there just for me. I have a bit of a weakness for inside jokes.

The Abu Dhabi visit was in early April, just in time for cherry blossom season in Japan. A few places around the world, including Washington D.C., celebrate cherry blossom season; however, in Japan it’s huge. People come from around the world to see the blossoms, and there’s even a special type of event called the hanami where folks from salarymen to universities students and everyone in between will set up tarps or blankets by the river or in a park under the cherry blossoms and get blasted. The Japanese refer to the cherry blossoms as sakura. So, I thought, what would be more natural than to open the speech with a reference to the sakura?

I don’t remember much about the speech, but I do remember the first few lines. They went like this:

It is my great pleasure to offer you a very warm welcome to Japan and (school name). We are deeply honored to receive such a prestigious group from the wonderful country of Abu Dhabi. And indeed, you have fortunately come at the perfect time to see the famous Japanese cherry blossoms, the sakura.

Now this might not sound too out of the ordinary, however for me the genius lay in the last comma. In my head I heard a deep and pregnant pause between “the famous Japanese cherry blossoms” and “the sakura.” As I like to say, it was funny to me. I sent the speech to my boss and we didn’t really have time to go over it, so I just hoped for the best. Now my boss wasn’t much of a writer, but he was, in his own way, a showman. He had clearly spent time practicing the speech, and when he spoke these first lines his delivery exceeded even my wildest expectations. Not only was the pregnant pause there, it was deeper and more profound than I had dreamed. He has perfectly grasped the import of the comma. This guy f***ing nailed it.

What does this have to do with BS? Well, when I wrote the lines above, in my own way I was BSing. I knew my boss’s taste for VIPs ran deep and so made sure to lay it on pretty thick (“great pleasure,” “very warm welcome,” “wonderful country,” etc.). Also, the comma, in its own way, was total BS. And the fact that my boss killed his delivery meant that he not only understood BS on an elemental level, he relished it too.

Later on during that same meeting with the Abu Dhabi folks my boss presented about some English vocabulary system our school was using as part of the English curriculum. This was a software program designed by my boss’ buddy that the school had paid an absurd amount of money to lease. It was, predictably, a piece of trash. However, my boss built it up as the greatest piece of educational tech since whatever, and showed a little of it on an overhead screen. The visitors were no dummies though, and one of them asked a sensible question: “why did you decide to go with this essentially handmade program where there are a lot of well-known and tested commercial programs available?” My boss wasn’t going to touch that one, so he turned it over to me. Now, I knew this thing was complete garbage; however, I also recognized, in addition to the need to save face, the opportunity to lay on a little BS. So I said something like:

“Well, that’s a really good question (always start with this when BSing an answer because it gives you time to think)

we chose this program after looking carefully at the alternatives (not true—we had looked at no alternatives)

and we felt in the end that this program best met the very specific needs of Japanese learners (also total nonsense—there is nothing so specific about Japanese learners that a software program needs to be so tailored).

In all our experience working with Japanese students, we felt like we needed something bespoke and fit-for-purpose, and we are really happy with our choice… (when BSing it is advised to throw around words like “bespoke” and “fit-for-purpose” in the hopes of throwing your listener(s) off the scent).

I probably went on some more, but you get the idea. The questioner thanked me and we moved on, however I knew that I had not in fact thrown him off the scent. He knew that I was BSing; I knew that he knew that I was BSing; and I like to think that maybe he knew that I knew that he knew that I was BSing. If so, he played his part in our little production to a T as well.

How did I feel about packing so much BS into one afternoon? I felt great about it. In the long history of bullshit corporate communications, the exaggerations and white lies I told that day rank pretty low down the list in terms of negative externalities if you will, and our visitors went away feeling welcomed and catered to, BS vocabulary programs aside. I guess in this instance I was a “pretty good talker.” However a great talker needs to do more than smooth over an awkward question in an education meeting. A great talker needs to prove it when there is substantially more on the line. To explicate this point, let’s take a look at an incident where my friend Kelly talked some dude out of murdering us.

My friend Kelly is a great talker. Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been a serial exaggerator, however, far from being a limitation to his conversational ability, it’s a huge asset. This is because, unlike another type of exaggerator who exaggerates their own role or place in a story (let’s call this the “narcissistic exaggerator,”) Kelly instead downplays his own role while simultaneously boosting usually one other player into comic, even mythic heights (let’s call this the “comic exaggerator”). Kelly is a lawyer, and if he’s telling a story about a country lawyer he’s run across, for instance, this fellow gets built up and built up, his every mannerism and turn of phrase turned up to 11, until we have not just a comic figure, but a heroic one. As for Kelly’s own role in whatever drama he is recounting, that gets dismissed with an “aw shucks, I was just kind of there” wave of his metaphorical hand. Kelly has had this ability forever, and has honed it to an art form. I have good reason to think that his abilities as a talker are instinctual, rather than learned, however, because of an instance where he had to draw on skills far different than his normal style.

One time my friend Kelly and I decided (well he decided and I went along) to walk from suburban Spokane where he lived all the way up to a kind of resort/ lodge place high up on Mount Spokane. The walk was about 20 miles, and would take all day. Now, a 20 mile hike is one thing—that’s pretty long—however hikes can be quite pleasant for those so inclined. This was not a hike though, as the whole thing was on public roads, most of them out in the middle of nowhere. All in all, this was not the best plan Kelly ever came up with, however we set out and were about 10 or 12 miles into the trek, outside of town, when a reddish car came flying down the hill in front of us. The driver saw us and swerved right at us. This, unfortunately, is something that sometimes happens in the U.S. for reasons passing understanding. This dude though didn’t just swerve toward us a bit, he full on tried to take us out. So much so in fact that his car went perpendicular to the road and halfway into the ditch and got stuck.

This seemed bad, and my instinct was to run with Kelly into the nearby field. Kelly, however, had other ideas. The guy got out of the car and started yelling at us: “you f***ing kids…, f*** you…, etc.” Not very creative, but still pretty worrying. Kelly though had the situation in hand from the get-go. He walked right over to the guy (who was at least 10 or 15 years older than us) and started talking to him:

Hey buddy, what’s going on? You having a bad day man? Anything I can do? Looks like your car get a bit stuck there—that’s OK, my friend and I will help dig you out.

Now I knew Kelly pretty well and knew he was a good talker from way back as mentioned. But this was another level. And the effect on the irate driver was incredible. In no time at all the guy was apologizing to Kelly, telling him his woes, and asking how we could get his car out together. Sure enough a few minutes later we were all three pushing and pulling his car out of the ditch and he went on his way.

What was going on here? Kelly must have realized somehow that the driver didn’t bear any specific ill-will toward us and was just engaging in a little road-rage because he was an angry about something or other. Also, the guy’s car was truly stuck, and neither Kelly nor I are small dudes, so he might not have liked his odds if it came to a fight. But there was just something about the way Kelly approached and disarmed him so quickly that I couldn’t really wrap my mind around. I realized then that my friend Kelly was not just a good talker, he was a great talker.

Although I’ve never seen anyone else pull off what Kelly did on that day, the general form of what he did I have seen before. In fact, a very similar, but slightly lower-stakes, incident happened when I was in university and attended a fraternity party. I was not in a fraternity and didn’t want to be. I did go to some fraternity parties just because that was what people did. Occasionally these parties could be creative, but mostly usually they were every bit as cliched as you might imagine—bros broing out and trying to get laid, women doing whatever the female equivalent of broing out might be, drunk billiards in the basement, people passing out on jungle juice, etc. Not only do these sound like terrible parties now, they were pretty terrible even back then. Nonetheless, I was at one, along with some friends from my dorm including Marc Campbell. Marc is maybe not the purest form of great talker that Kelly is, but he’s pretty darn good. While Kelly’s style is often oratorical (and BS laden—more on that in a moment), Marc’s style is smoother and has more of a cool jazz feel. Where Kelly goes for the comedically dramatic exaggeration, Marc stays more in the realm of gentle patter. Both talkers though achieve a sort of hypnotic effect through their respective styles, and Marc’s patter came in handy at this particular party.

We were a group of about five, and had barely entered the door when some guy I didn’t know came up and started getting in our face for no apparent reason. He was directing his attention to another member of our group—maybe they had run into each other before? It wasn’t clear, but what was clear is that this guy was itching for a fight right out of the gate. Now I have been in plenty of situations where I have had to try to defuse something or someone from kicking off, and have some skills in this arena. However, most people’s instincts, my own included, still tend to be a little defensive. Most people, even if committed to defusal, might say something like: “hey dude, settle down. There’s no need to be so aggro man. Just chill.” This kind of approach can work, however there is no guarantee that it will. Sometimes people who are looking to pick a fight will fall back on a kind of bizarre and unwarranted self-righteousness, coming back with something like “I’m not gonna f***ing chill man—don’t tell me what to do. You wanna see aggro, I’ll give you aggro.” So the “dude settle down” approach is a bit hit or miss. Marc Campbell could do better.

Instead of telling the guy to chill, Marc Campbell pulled out a Kelly-like move. Although he was not the direct object of the guy’s ire, he went right over to the guy and stuck his hand out. “Hi I’m Marc,” he said “nice to meet you. What’s your name?” Just like that. Marc didn’t even reference the fact that this guy was acting like a total ass-clown for no reason at all—in fact he acted like he didn’t even notice it. The effect on this guy was exactly the same as with the angry driver. The guy calmed down immediately and he and Marc started rapping. In no time at all the situation was completely defused and everyone was friends.

Now both of these incidents happened years ago and I remember them quite clearly, so obviously I learned something vital from both Marc Campbell and Kelly. And, it’s not even that the words themselves in these cases were anything special. There was no need to pull out a “bespoke” or “fit-for-purpose,” just a normal everyday “hey how are you” got the job done. And we see here that although Kelly and Marc both turned potentially dangerous situations around rapidly by just completely ignoring the egregiousness of the other person’s behavior and acknowledging the humanity underneath, we do see something of a contrast between their relative styles. I think there are two keys here.

The first key lies in Kelly’s “are you having a bad day?” Although this sounds normal enough, I think it actually has a hint of BS. Even though it worked perfectly, it is a hard approach for even a very good talker to find. I play a little bit of chess, and chess players will sometimes say “that’s a hard move to find.” I always find this saying interesting, because hard moves to find usually occur in the mid game when there are not all that many moves even available to the player. So how could a move from a not very capacious move set be “hard to find”? That’s the difference between a good chess player and a great one. A good chess player, such as myself, makes many good moves and some bad ones. A great chess player makes good moves, and every once and a while pulls out a great move, the move that is hard to find. Once a good player is shown the hard to find move, it becomes obvious. But he or she has to be shown it first. Such it is with Kelly’s move here. I posit that it is both hard to find and a little BSey. In other words, it’s high level.

The second key lies in something I don’t exactly recall Marc Campbell doing, but I’m pretty sure he must have. I’m pretty sure Marc must have, at some point in the interaction, laid his hand, probably his right hand, gently on the other guy’s arm. This is a critical move, and can go critically wrong. If indeed, as I suspect, Marc’s low-key patter was accompanied by an arm pat, we see a further, slight but important, contrast of styles. Kelly opened as a friend to the driver, but he definitely did not touch him, certainly not right away. Marc’s pacification technique therefore came in two steps—first the patter, and second the touch.

Being a great talker then seems to have something to do with establishing and/or recognizing people’s common humanity. As a good talker, I not only satisfied the needs of the moment with my Abu Dhabi friend, I advanced the general social-relational field between our group and theirs by papering over, in a somewhat obvious but still effective manner, a potentially difficult moment. Kelly and Marc Campbell however did one better—they reached through the bluster of their opponents’ opening, and, like great chess players, quickly disrupted their entire position. (I use the word “opponent” here advisedly, as conversations can be seen, per the sociologist Erving Goffman, as “games” between discrete players.) Years later, I was myself in a position where I had to put into practice what I learned from Marc and Kelly. In this particular situation I also had to draw deeply on my BS skills to save the day.

I had been in Tampa for a conference and was flying out from the wonderful Tampa airport back to Japan. It was the week that LeBron James left the Miami Heat to go back to the Cavs, and this was dominating the news. The first leg of the trip was Tampa to Washington D.C., and the flight left at about 7 in the morning. I was seated in economy in an aisle seat, and in the middle seat next to me was a guy in his maybe in his early 30s. We chatted a bit and as soon as we were airborne he ordered two Bloody Mary’s and offered to buy me one, or two, as well. This was a very generous offer, and I told him so, however I am not a morning drinker and politely declined. (I cannot figure out how people get liquored up in airports or airplanes first thing in the morning when flying domestic. It’s just not a move I have in me, but to each their own I guess.)

In addition to the two fresh drinks, the guy let me know that he had already had several beers on the drive to the airport with his wife. His job was as a deep sea diver off oil rigs, and he had landed a lucrative consulting gig on a rig off of Dubai. Once on (onboard?) the rig he wouldn’t be able to drink, so he was going to get loaded on the way over. I could tell that although he probably had a pretty high tolerance he was already well on his way.

He drank the Bloody Mary’s and ordered two more. As he drank he talked, and at first it was a pretty interesting conversation. He was a conservative he told me, and he recognized that this was because he was a product of his background and geography. Despite the fact that he shared a number of far right views that were not my cup of tea, I found him to be quite self-aware and even self-deprecating about his own politics and relative station in life. He was set to be on the rig for six months and would not be able to see his wife the entire time. I could not blame the guy for having a few, or for getting a little emotional, which he was. However, things took a turn for the worse an hour into the flight or so.

Three Bloody Mary’s deep, he began ranting about “liberals” in his odd mixture of pure recycled cliche and some kind of weird insight, and he asked me about my politics. Not wanting to get too deep into the weeds, I said something like “well, they are probably a bit further left than your own.” This was probably an understatement, but I was trying to play it cool. The dude accepted this just fine, and we kept talking in a friendly way. However, his anger at liberals was such that he must have felt the need to “displace” his potential anger at myself as a putative leftist (or left-libertarian to be more precise), to a more obvious target. For this he chose a gentleman a few rows in front of us who sported a longish ponytail. This dude was seated with a woman, probably his girlfriend, and they were talking as well. I couldn’t quite make out what they were talking about, however my seat mate decided that the ponytail was a classic example of his hated liberals. As my new friend kept drinking and the ponytail kept talking, my friend started getting madder and madder.

“I want to go up there and punch that guy. He’s such a liberal. I hate that kind of guy. I’m gonna go up there and punch his face in.”

My dude was not messing around, and he kept repeating lines like this to the point that I felt like he was in fact about to jump over me and go on the attack. Once again, this seemed bad. Not only would this be a poor move for my guy, but I myself felt potentially implicated as he had gotten himself all ginned up through the course of our conversation. I felt like it was up to me to contain the situation, so I started to draw on some of the things I’d learned from Kelly and Marc as well as some other skills. First, just like Marc, I started talking in a kind of relaxed patter:

“There’s no need to go up there man. We’re good back here. This is good (…) He’s not up to anything man, it’s cool. We’re having a good conversation.

I went on like this for a bit, emphasizing the “distance” between us and the couple (“back here,”) and trying to render the liberal as not being a threat “not up to anything.” But while my guy stayed in his seat, I could tell my approach wasn’t totally working.

“Just look at that guy. I hate that fucking guy. Do you hear what they are talking about? I’m going to punch his lights out.”

Sensing that we were moving from the realm of the not great to some potential real bad action, I had to move to phase two. I began touching him, gently, almost stroking him on his arm and shoulder. Stroke, pat, grasp, release, stroke. Like that. And I kept talking. This started to work a lot better and he calmed down a bit as the patter/ touch combination I had learned from Marc did it’s magic. The next step was to distract him. In order to do this I fell back on a move I had learned over some years of being a manager at work. I had to agree with him. However I wasn’t about to agree with him about the f***ing liberal up the aisle. I had to agree with him about something else. This turned out to be China.

Earlier in our conversation the guy had expressed a serious dislike of China and its role in the world. American politics is odd, and you never know what elements are going to be part of a given person’s worldview. The malign influence of China was part of his. Now I had been to China several times by this point and had had some really interesting experiences there. Also, I didn’t dislike China per se. However I saw an opening here to index general concord with one of his political views. So I said something like:

“You know man, you were talking about China before and that made me think. China’s role in the world is interesting for sure and it kind of worries me too. I don’t know what the future of our relations with China will be. It’s a big topic.”

Here we see the very distinct presence of some BS. You will notice that I’m not really saying anything, just talking as if I generally agree with him on this matter. What I was saying was also deliberately non-controversial, both because I didn’t want to commit myself to views I didn’t really hold, and also because I was trying to turn the temperature down on the whole situation. And, my non-specific language “it’s a big topic,” left open the possibility to tack either way depending on his reaction. For example, if he were to respond, “yeah man, I can’t stand those Commies,” I could reply “yeah, it sure is worrying.” On the other hand were he to come back with “it is a big topic and I don’t really understand all of it,” I could go with “yeah, me either. Man the world is a super complex place these days.” (Readers of my piece on the great Steve Keegan will recognize the influence.)

In any case, my threefold approach, patter/ touch/ distraction began to work and he slowly let go of the ponytail with just a few last grumbles. The situation was “covered” with nary a flight attendant involved, and the ponytail and his girl may not even have been any the wiser. I had done well.

So, what happened here? I definitely rose to the level of a very good talker, maybe better. But more than that, I had to read a number of contextual clues in order to navigate the situation. First, I had to understand that the guy was in an emotional state and several drinks in at 8 AM. Second, I had to grasp that his temporary disdain for the ponytail was not based on any actual foundation, and was instead simply projection. Accordingly, my role was to try to help my guy withdraw his projection, little by little. Thirdly, I had to guess that he would be receptive to me touching him (without asking). This is a dicey one, as it’s usually far from normal or acceptable to just start touching a stranger, however desperate times call for desperate measures as they say. Here, I felt it was not only called for but necessary. Fourth, as mentioned above, I needed to grasp that his core need in this situation was for me to validate him and his worldview somehow.

(There is a certain class of people who for some reason happen to think they are right about everything. Every once and a great while you run across someone who kind of seems like they are. In the vast majority of cases, however, this need to be told they are right about everything is actually compensating for a deep insecurity. With these kind of people there is only one real answer. You have to first agree with them. In a managerial context it might look like this. Let’s say you have a direct whom you know needs to be “right” all the time. With this kind of person usually no conversation is really possible until you have acknowledged their rightness. But as a manager you can’t just say “you’re right, I agree,” because that puts you on the hook for having to maybe implement whatever they are advocating for. So you need to hedge. In this case, effective hedges include the words fundamentally” and the word “basically.”

“I hear you. And fundamentally you are right about that. I know that. However, there are some other factors to consider here…” Or, “Yeah, basically that makes sense. I think that’s right, and I’ve know you’ve looked closely into this. We just need to be aware of the fact that there are different things impacting this situation and…” With phrases like this you can, hopefully, go ahead and, calmly and rationally, outline those other factors or things. What is happening here, of course, is that by affirming the “fundamental” or “basic” rightness of their position you take away their most effective piece (to use chess language again). This approach usually works pretty well, however many people, and perhaps managers especially, are not good at this move. That is, if they don’t agree they might be able to say “I’m listening and I want to understand but…,” however this is much less effective. Phrases like this are the equivalent of the “dude just chill,” approach to our fraternity bro, overly defensive and insufficiently open. I have explained the “fundamentally you’re right” move to other managers and they sometimes find it tough, saying “I get it in theory, but I’m just not sure I can do it in practice.” This is not really a “hard to find” move, however from my observations managers are bad at it probably because they feel like they have to actually have to agree to agree. But you don’t. A good talker can just BS it.)

Let’s wrap up on my guy from the Tampa flight. Although he certainly had general validation needs that I was able to tap into, when we got off the plane in Washington D.C. I got a little more insight into the dynamic between him and myself. As I mentioned, he was probably in his early 30s, and I was about a decade older. My boss (a different boss than the one in the sakura anecdote—I’ve had a few bosses) who was in his 60s had accompanied me to the conference. He had been seated in a different part of the plane and had not been witness to any of the action. My guy and I bumped into my boss on the way off the plane and I introduced my boss to the guy. Now, my boss was a fairly distinguished looking fellow, with greying hair and tall frame. I believe he would also have been wearing a suit jacket with no necktie. As soon as I introduced the two, my guy’s manner changed completely. Far from being his earlier raving self, he immediately bowed to my boss and said “it’s very nice to meet you sir. Matthew and I have been having a really interesting conversation. I wish you guys a safe trip home.” Suddenly, he seemed completely sober, and his affect was that of a junior, even a supplicant. It was a bit bizarre, however it struck me that this might have been one reason he was so interested in gaining my approval of his political views. He saw me as well as a (slightly) older man, and something is his upbringing or his moral makeup led him to defer to, and suck up to (for lack of a better phrase) older guys. As for the ponytail, I don’t even know how old he was. We never saw his face.

We are a ways away from BS alone here aren’t we? Good and great talkers are not just raconteurs it seems. Rather, they employ flexible strategies from a wider skill set, which may include “reading the room,” use of physical space and sometimes physical contact, and a lightning quick ability to change direction and react to their interlocutor. A good or great speaker, then, operates much like an actor.

In all three of the “pacification” anecdotes above, the pacifier actually took control of the situation by taking care of the person in question. The pacifiers here essentially take on a “regulation” function to help bring their intially aggravated interlocutor back into a more normal and relaxed state. I wish to underline again that this is done not only, or even perhaps primarily, through the use of words. Physical posture, affect, and again touch which helps regulate the physiological state of the other person, play a large role. I have noticed that if a conversation is not going smoothly for whatever reason, a change in one’s physical bearing and/or location can effect change quickly. If you are standing, crouching, leaning against a wall, or perhaps especially sitting on a table can help defuse matters through the implicit suggestion of temporary deference. NLP teaches a lot about this. However, language is still critical. The day is not won without Kelly’s “bad day,” Marc Campbell’s “Hi, I’m Marc,” or my own China diversion. To put the point succinctly, a good talker is often doing a lot more than just talking, but he is still doing a lot of talking.

Thus far this essay has focused primarily on examples of “talking people down” with a sideline in BS. I’d like to shift focus a little and provide a flavor of Kelly’s style during a different incident in order to better understand how talkers can sometimes simply speak something novel into reality. When Kelly and I were in high school we were both big fans of Larry King’s radio show. For those who don’t remember, King had a late night radio show for years before, and briefly concurrent with, his TV show on CNN. I like Larry’s CNN show, however the radio show was way better. There were a couple of features of the show that I especially liked. The first was that King famously did no preparation for his guests. He knew a huge amount about the world of course, however he never read the guests’ book ahead of time or anything like that. Now, this might sound lazy, but King explained that it was because he wanted to come in totally open. He’d say “if my guest is a firefighter, my first question will be ‘so what’s it like to be a firefighter?’” This was his style—open-ended and non-directive. King was perhaps a “lazy” interviewer, but in the best possible sense. By making the guest do almost all the work, King got himself out of the way, and as a result guests might go in any direction and the show became “eventful.” Another thing I loved was, after the main guest left King would take questions on absolutely anything. Most of the time he would give full, generous answers to his listeners, however sometimes a caller would be really weird or inappropriate. In these cases, King would fall back on a singular phrase. He’d cut off thee conversation by saying “cold compress ma’am” or “cold compress sir.” Basically, he was telling them to lie down and ice their head. Which is hysterical.

Anyway, Kelly and I loved Larry, and Kelly even lent me Larry’s books, which were, predictably, about talking. King’s show was broadcast in Spokane from around 9 PM pacific time and then re-run immediately after, and I would listen to him before falling asleep only to wake up in the middle of the night with the re-run playing. And then, all of the sudden, King’s show was dropped from the AM radio station in town. Now, you might think this was something we had no ability to do anything about, however Kelly didn’t see it that way. He proposed we drive down to the radio station and stage a protest. This seemed to me just bizarre enough to be exciting, so I said sure, let’s go. So Kelly and me and another friend piled into Kelly’s car, skipping out of school mid-morning, and drove the 45 minutes or so to the station. We had no appointment, and were just three high school kids with no leverage of any kind. When we got to the front door it was locked and there was a kind of intercom. Kelly, naturally, nominated himself to do the talking, and started to explain over the intercom why we had come.

“Do you have an appointment?” they asked? “No.” “Who are you?” “We are high school students and we are Larry King fans. We think it’s outrageous that your station recently cancelled his show and we want to talk to someone about it.”

Kelly’s approach was pretty brazen, and at first it didn’t get the job done. We remained shut out of the station. However he kept going, and going, and sooner or later the person on the other end caved. “OK,” she said, “we’ll send someone down.” Sure enough, the station manager himself came down and let us into the hallway. Kelly pleaded his case, and I backed him up to the best of my ability. The station manager, to his great credit, heard us out. “I understand you guys were big fans, and I’m sorry about the cancellation. We loved Larry too, and we’d like to bring him back.” And so on. The station manager was BSing us, of course, and we knew it, however it was nice to get a hearing. We left after a while, knowing we hadn’t changed policy but that we had, at least, given it our best shot. Then we drove back to school.

By the time we got back to school it was after lunch and we were late for English class. The teacher eyed us as we walked and said something like “there’d better be a story.” And Kelly said, “why yes there is,” and proceeded to recount the whole incident in his patented comic manner. This was obviously more than enough for the teacher who laughed and folded us into the class. It is not just me, after all, who has a little taste for the irregular. King never came back on the Spokane airwaves, and his radio show gave way to TV pretty soon after in any case, however I learned from Kelly that day as well. What I learned was, social “rules” are often pretty fungible with the right amount of conversational lubricant. When I got to university I had plenty of opportunities to apply what I had picked up.

As I understood it, Kelly was essentially creating his own reality by “re-framing” the Larry King situation. We kids had no standing to protest the show’s cancellation, however his insistence that we were passionate fans and therefore deserved a hearing carried the day. Likewise, although we were late for class, Kelly delivered a funny story that likewise won over the teacher and gave us a little grace.

At university I was a pretty good student, but I was sometimes lazy or preoccupied and didn’t always finish my papers on time. When this happened, I would write, or just talk to, my professor and spin an elaborate tale. My style was not to make anything up, not to lie about a sick grandmother or anything like that, but rather to take whatever kernel or truth applied (for example I wanted to talk a long walk in the woods instead of studying), and build it up, just like Kelly would. This might sound something like:

“I started working on your paper, and got a good way into it, but then I remembered when we were looking at Thoreau and I got really inspired. I needed to get out of my head and into the woods, just like Thoreau. As I was walking so many ideas came into my head and I just couldn’t help but write them down, and that started to become this whole long thing that kind of displaced your essay. I’m really sorry about that, and I think I can maybe apply some of my Thoreau thinking to the essay and come up with something really good.”

Something like this would usually buy me a week or two. College professors, it turns out, don’t really give a damn and enjoy a good story as much as the next person. So I leaned into this, and, to give myself a little credit, usually delivered on the essay in the end. Anyway, word got around that I was pretty good at getting extensions, and other students started coming to me asking me to write excuses for them. I said sure—the ghostwriter instinct was in place early—and would ask them “what excuse do you want to go with?” They would feed me something and I’d spin a one or two page tale out of it. “Go with this,” I’d tell them, and it usually worked.

There was one female student that I had a crush on and would basically have done anything for. And it turned out that she was taking a class in Art History from a woman professor I had also studied with. This professor was a little prickly, but cared about her subject and liked me for some reason. I knew this, and used it. My girl friend (sadly not girlfriend) was dealing with some personal issues and I had already written a few elaborate excuses for her. The shelf-life on these guys was running out however, and she asked me if I would speak with the professor in person on her behalf. Although I was not currently a student in the professor’s class, I agreed and went to the professor’s office. I went with something like this:

“As you know, my friend “L” has had a lot going on and has had a hard time meeting her deadlines. She feels really bad about this and knows she needs to get back up to speed with your class soon. I remember well what an interesting and enlivening class you teach, and know that L feels the same. We are just looking for a little more flexibility so that she get can things sorted out and get all her work done. Do you think there is anything we can do about this?”

Of course the professor said sure, she can have all the time she needs. Does this seem strange? Maybe it was, however there are a couple of aspects here that bear scrutiny. First, my patter, though certainly full of BS, contained no kind of demand. I didn’t blame the teacher in any way, and “owned” the issue on behalf of my friend. Second, I put the ball in the professor’s court—“is there anything we can do about this.” Third, the “we” here was open-ended and allowed for various interpretations. It could include just L and I, or, better, it could include the professor as well. In essence, I was inviting the professor to enter into complicity with us as a trio. And fourth, underlying the whole approach was an understanding, albeit nascent at the time, that “rules” are made by people and can be changed by people. Later on I read Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s classic The Social Construction of Reality, which provided a more intellectual gloss on what I was doing. Berger and Luckmann write that:

“Man’s self-production is always, and of necessity, a social enterprise. Men together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations {however they are prone to apprehend} the products of human activity as if there were something else than human products–such as facts of nature, results of cosmic law, or manifestations of divine will {therefore} man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world as a strange facticity, {…} over which he has no control.”

This all sounds a little abstract, however the authors’ point is a simple one: people make up rules and then forget they made them and imagine that these rules have always existed. Basic social logic may have dictated that Kelly and I had no chance of talking our way into the radio station, however by simply ignoring this logic entirely, Kelly talked his way in. Basic social logic, likewise, may have suggested that I had no shot of persuading the art professor to give L endless extensions without her even being in the room, but I managed it. Here, both Kelly and I succeeded in our quests by creative use of language, by just “going for it,” and, perhaps most importantly, by understanding, at least on some level, that rules are time-bound and contingent, that people can make and re-make rules, often enough at the drop of a hat.

At the end of the day, I still don’t think I’m a great talker. At best, I, like Marc Campbell, am “pretty darn good.” The reason I think so is, my own abilities such as they are in this arena are a little instinctual; however, as detailed above, they are mostly learned. I may be, in the immortal words of the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in The Talented Mr. Ripley, “a quick study,” however my approach is still studied. Kelly’s approach, and to a lesser extent Marc’s, seems to come from a deeper, more atavistic place, a place I remain in awe of. Maybe some day I’ll get there, but even if I do, it’ll still be rooted in a lifetime of observation and application. I can talk, but Kelly still talks circles around me. He’s a great talker.

Dedication: For Kelly and Marc Campbell. Thanks for saving the ponytail from getting decked.

4 thoughts on “On Good Talkers and Great Talkers (featuring my friends Kelly and Marc Campbell)

Leave a Reply