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.Read more