As I was going through some notes this week, I found one of my favorite TED Talk videos. Conversation skills are so important, yet so many people lack at least some of these today.

Granted, I’ll count myself in that crowd. Learning is a life-long process and new knowledge is something we should always pursue.

10 ways to have a better conversation

Celeste Headlee, writer and radio host, presents these 10 ways to have a better conversation. In this TEDx Talk from 2015, Celeste delivers some food for thought with humor, but definitely, some good tips to note. I think one of my favorite quotes from her would have to be, “There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.”

With more than 10,000,000 views of her TED Talk, I’d say her words have resonated with a few folks. If you’d like to dive deeper, I have loved Celeste Headlee’s new book, We Need to Talk where she details these points in greater detail with her life experiences as a journalist and conversationalist.

While I could list all 10 conversation tips from Celeste’s videos, here are the top 5 that resonate with me.


I use this tip in every presentation and workshop that I give on advocacy and communication skills. We could all have better conversations if we took the time to listen. And often that can include asking questions to clarify what the other person is saying or asking.

We have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.

Don’t multitask

As much as we like to think so, we are not good at multitasking. Even if you think you can text and drive, or talk to a friend while checking Facebook status updates, your full attention can only be devoted to one thing at a time. You’re making mistakes and diverting your attention elsewhere.

When having a conversation, listen to someone, and pay attention to the conversation you’re in.

teaching conversation skills
These are some of the basic conversation skills I teach in workshops with advocates across the country every week.

Use open-ended questions

Ask for a yes or a no, and that’s what you’ll get. Instead, go with a technique we learned in elementary school.

Headlee recommends starting with the Who, What, When, Where, Why, or How. You’re much more likely to get an interesting response.

If you don’t know, say you don’t know

One of the quickest ways to lose credibility with others is trying to come up with an answer when you don’t have one. You can’t defend everyone. You can’t be expected to know everything.

If you don’t know something, work to find someone who does know the answer and you can both learn something knew.

Be brief

Say what you want to say and stop. Not many people want to know your life story. If they do, they’ll ask.

Further Reading

I know I’ve watched this TED video at least a dozen times over the past few years and I learn something new each time I do. I’ve loved Celeste’s book even more. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you do.

Other good reads include Heard Mentality by Celeste Headlee for those who are interested in podcasting. And Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle.

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