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Tracey Stern

The Lost Art of Conversation

3 February 2011, Tracey Stern

One of my mother’s favourite sayings during my younger years was that people were given two ears and one mouth for a reason; that the art of a conversation involved listening, more than talking. In the web heavy world we now live in, it would appear as though the mantra has changed to ‘having two eyes and one mouth’.

Listen and Learn

With over 28 million adults in the UK using Social Media websites (source : Brand Republic), and with more than 100 million Twitter users worldwide, conversations have never been more constant and public.

But how deep do these conversations really go? With Twitter, we are encouraged to keep our thoughts to a minimum of 140 characters. We live in a fast world where everything is fast paced – from the way we watch media, through to our dating habits. Having dynamic conversations is the norm and sound-bites are the way of the world.

The world of status updates on a variety of platforms has also created a mask of anonymity for many. It has given up something to hide behind – we can switch off the conversation at any time we want to, in a way that is far easier than abruptly ending a phone call.

Two way dialogue

But with the advent of Social media platforms, the most fundamental change has been in the evolution of conversations, from one-way to two-way dialogue. Individuals and companies are encouraged, to partake in a way we were never able to before.

Brands such as Gap, Starbucks and Uniqlo have broken the mould in asking their customers to help decide the future look of their brand, and the price of their products.


However, what is often questionable, is the veracity and depth of the virtual conversation. Whilst technology has undoubtedly enabled communication with micro communities, sometimes a lot may be said but mean little. According to the Chinese proverb, ‘a single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month’s study of books’. Over time, how many of us are guilty of rushing communications due to time pressures? Would we rush through a conversation in a pub or over dinner, in the way we would speed through an email compilation or Facebook status update?

Do we take the same time constructing our email campaigns or daily Tweets, as we do a formal pitch or client visit? And how many businesses are guilty of farming out their Social Media activity to someone with little experience, or of junior employment status, just so they can tick a box? Would you send your graduate trainee into a boardroom meeting or on the road to visit your customers?

PlatoThe worst sin, and one which we are all guilty of, is saying something because we want to; because it feels important to us, and not necessarily because our customer wants to hear it. I defer to the wisdom of Plato at this point, who wisely quoted ‘Wise men talk because they have something to say, fools because they have to say something’.

But, some old rules still apply

Despite the new digital rules, we still need to spend as much time thinking about our digital communication as we used to with our verbal communication. The postcard may be going out of fashion, but the personalisation we receive via communication is still as important today as it ever has been. I love getting personalised birthday cards from the likes of Moonpig, but delete impersonal emails from people or companies who have taken little or no time to think about the content of the communication.

Brands need to take their time to work out what needs to be said, and critically, what needs to be heard. Integrating conversations, throughout an organisation is vital to success. Too often, companies have separated conversations, with standalone expertise and silos, which can result in leaving customers with mixed messages and an inconsistent company tone and feel.

We need to inspire and instigate conversations in the way we always have, but give them meaning and purpose, and a route for feedback and thought.

Fewer words, wisely constructed, will still triumph over many, which are composed for vanity. Listening, then speaking rings as true in 2011 as it did when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.