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Speak Up

Let’s start a conversation about starting a conversation.

I don’t want to put you on the defensive, but we all know that you aren’t the life of the party. It’s not that people dislike you on sight. It usually takes at least two minutes before a new friend or co-worker concludes, “Gee, that’s one of the nicest ax-murderers I’ve ever met.”

The problem is that you’re shy … sensitive … often catatonic. Sometimes, you try to loosen your tongue with alcohol, but you end up loosening your clothes and dancing in the punch bowl. So, you stand in the corner behind the potted palm, half-potted yourself, and wait until you can stuff your pockets with canapes and sneak out the back door.

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While your behavior in social situations is certainly understandable, it also could be hurting your career. It’s difficult to get a job, make a sale or impress a boss, if you can’t answer a simple question like, “How are you?” without stammering, sweating and running out of the room.

Fortunately for you and your career, author Don Gabor has just published a revised and updated edition of his masterwork, “How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends.”

In 205 pages, including index, Gabor provides enough helpful hints to turn a Mute Maude into a Chatty Cathy. Like making eye contact. “With eye contact and a friendly smile,” Gabor writes, “you’ll send this unmistakable message, ‘I’d like to talk to you and maybe get to know you better.'”

If you’re uncomfortable with making eye contact, Gabor suggests you “let your gaze travel over the features of his face, hair, nose, lips and even earlobes!” This is an excellent technique, though it can be improved if you whip out a laser pointer to keep you focused on the particular body part being examined. (You might also employ a Q-Tip to check for earwax. Talk about a conversation starter!)

Once contact has been made — and assuming that security hasn’t been called — you’ll want to utilize one of Gabor’s four “Icebreakers.” Icebreaker No. 1 recommends you use “closed-end ritual questions” to quickly get a conversation started. Closed-end questions require only a short answer, such as the book’s examples, “Do you live around here?” or “Is this your first visit here?”

Unfortunately, these excellent examples may not be totally appropriate if the party is at someone’s home and talking to the host. That’s why my favorite closed-end ritual question is “Will you lend me money?” Chances are, the answers you get will be quite short, indeed. But ask enough times, and even if you don’t make friends, you could make the rent.

Joining a conversation already in progress is never easy, especially when you’re pretty darn sure the people are talking about you. Gabor provides some simple steps to insert yourself into the discussion, including: “Look for small open groups of friendly-looking people.” “Establish eye contact and smile at the speakers.” “Make a positive comment,” and “Introduce yourself and say, ‘Do you mind if I join you?'”

These are powerful techniques, but be careful how you use them. You could leave the party as the newest member of the Ku Klux Klan or, worse, the Miley Cyrus Fan Club.

I’m afraid I can’t endorse Icebreaker No. 3, “Offer a Sincere Compliment.” The suggestion that you “compliment others on how they look” is probably a carryover from the 1983 edition. Since in 2011, telling a co-worker, “You look stunning in that outfit! Are you going someplace special?” will most likely elicit the response, “Yes, I’m going to the human resources department to report you for sexual harassment.”

If talking is difficult, it’s even harder when you actually have to listen. “Poor listening can damage more than your conversations,” Gabor writes. “It can scuttle your career and relationships.”

The problem with listening is that other people aren’t as fascinating as you are, and they’d certainly see that if they’d only listen. I suggest that once a conversation has begun, you pull out a stopwatch and start timing the part of the conversation that is not about you. Once this torture has gone on for a good long while — say, 20 seconds — it’s time to call a “Timeout” and talk about yourself.

Don’t stop until everyone in the room has made their excuses and gone home. It shouldn’t take too long. Hey, any doofus can start a conversation. It takes a very gifted conversationalist to end one.

Bob Goldman has been an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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