conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘listentalk’ Category

FastCompany: The Beguiling Dangers of Insider Language

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Check out my article in today’s FastCompanyThe Many Dangers of Saying What You Think People Want To Hear


Image Credit: FastCompany


Collaboration in Real Life: The Book Cover

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Self-promotion is stinky poop

This week I spoke with a copywriter who writes plays and novels on the side. But he doesn’t work too hard on promoting his finished bits of literature. He prefers to stick to the writing part (who doesn’t?). This copywriter is not atypical on two counts:

  1. If you don’t need to get your message out (that is, move product to earn the feeble coin a book represents) you can let it languish.
  2. Copywriters are bad at self-promotion.
Listen Talk Camp Fire-RD-10212014

Roger’s cover

Not all copywriters, and probably not the copywriter I spoke with. But many are bad at self-promotion. It’s funny because while copywriters have insight into the psychology of business problems and use divergent thinking to solve those problems, they have a hard time turning that insight onto their own projects.

And that is true for all of us.

It’s not just because self-promotion has the feeling of swimming in a septic tank. It is also because we are truly blinded to the very things we are most passionate about. We’re typically deep inside those passions, and we have no clue what it all looks like from the outside. That’s why we need to tell others and get the outside insight that telling affords.

A client and friend provided a quick insight that has proved far better than anything this insider could produce. My first book, ListenTalk: When Conversation is an Act of God, is on its way through this marathon called publishing. Encapsulating the message into an image and a few words has proved daunting to me. Roger’s cover, with the fire, well, most people love it better than my covers. I’m not bitter, I’m grateful: grateful to have people around who can offer very tangible insights. These insights regularly, well, cover my arse. And I’ve always maintained that I am neither a designer nor photographer.

I thank God for people with such quick insight.


My covers.

A word about ListenTalk versus “conversation is an engine”

If you’ve dropped by this blog, you may have noticed I hit on different topics as they relate to conversation. Business and the business of writing, and the business of how faith and craft and work fit together are key drivers for me as I write.

My first ongoing project along these lines was to develop a sort of practical theology of persuasion—something I was desperate to understand as a copywriter who regularly trusts in God. That is what ListenTalk represents. It takes some topics from “conversation is an engine” but develops them specifically for people of faith. Here’s the draft copy from the back cover:

“Talk is cheap.”

So we say, but deep down we know different.

We know talk is a potent engine for war and love and all that lies between. Talk is our entertainment and our tool for exploring every relationship. Talk is an economic engine. Lives change—culture changes—when we talk together. In many ways, the future is patterned after our speech.

And this: even God responds to talk.

Yet we pay scarce attention to the working parts of conversation: the listening, the words used, and the intent behind the words. And we hardly think about God’s purpose in speaking, and how God speaks today with fierce desire for reunion—and how that desire motivates all God says and does.

Every day, people work out God’s desire in thousands of ordinary ways. Not so much through sermons and high-minded programs as through the ordinary conversations among themselves.

ListenTalk will help you to re-think what God accomplishes in even your smallest, most ordinary conversations.

ListenTalk is a wonderful book with deep wisdom, practical advice, and heart-warming encouragement. Read it, converse with it, and share it with others.” –Dr. Quentin Schultze, Calvin College

“In our contemporary world where words and ideas seem to divide far more than they unite, ListenTalk provides an antidote of balance and sanity. ListenTalk reminds us of a power that can lead to greater understanding, intimacy, collaboration, and even personal transformation…culminating in deepening our life with God.” –Judith Hougen, University of Northwestern—St. Paul



Hey—wait a second. You could buy ListenTalk!


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Prank your colleagues with over-eager listening

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Listening-lessons from the dead

Halloween is still a couple weeks out and we’re gearing up to scare the bejeebers out of each other. Check out this infarctioninducing bus shelter in Austria. Certainly the walking dead are a scary fiction.

(The walking dead are fiction. Right?)

Here’s a way to prank your colleagues on a Monday. When they say something, get very close—inches away—and listen. It’s freaky, I tell you. Invade their personal space with wide eyes and open ears. Set your mind and fix your body to understand what they are saying, why they are saying it, and what it means.

This scary prank comes courtesy an old dead guy I’ve been reading. This old dead guy played all sorts of pranks. He was a kind of performance-art-communicator: He shaved with a sword. He drew a city on a brick laid next it for a year, packed his luggage and broke through a wall instead of calling for a camel-taxi.

Only they weren’t exactly pranks. He was hearing voices (well, a voice) and acting out what that voice said. Was he nuts? Likely his contemporaries thought so. But his culture also held a treasured place for people they considered prophets—people who seemed to speak for God. Which Ezekiel reluctantly did.

This particular listening prank came from the voice Ezekiel heard, but it also was not a prank, but a way to pay attention to the next thing he was about to see. The voice asked for careful attention because the next thing was important. And the prophet’s job was to declare it.

Be careful with this prank. Pretending to listen can become actual listening, which can be habit-forming because of the way it affects your relationships and job.


Image credit: Taxi

Talk With Those Who Talk With You (DGtC#25)

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Humans just want to connect

Social media, like sales, seeks an ever-expanding public. All tweeters want more followers. All bloggers—same thing. Just like the TV networks of yore, where Nielsen Media Research rated efficacy by numbers (and types) of viewers they brought in. Which just happened to coincide with increasing amounts of cash they could wring out of a sponsor for a 30 second span of monologue.

How to measure audience (and collect cash) continues in today’s social media world as various metrics are embraced and/or disgraced: clicks, views, comments, engagement, time spent on a site.

But real humans in earnest conversation don’t care about size of audience. They care about connecting with a person to tell the important thing they have to say or to hear the important thing a friend or colleague has to say. They want to remark on what is remarkable.


Call me a mystic (please!), but I still embrace the notion that the people peppered through our lives are there for reasons beyond our understanding. And those talking to you—today, right now—have something you need to hear and they need to say. Those people right beside you are worth attending to. For their sake. And for yours.

It’s not wrong to widen your audience.

Just don’t lose sight of this moment with those right before you.

Also see:



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

“Viral” is Fool’s Gold

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People often have legs and feet. So do collaborative ideas.

Years ago we noticed the threshold to globalization falling to the point where anyone could step over it. Back then advertisers talked about music or images that could transcend language with television and radio. And it was true: cloak your message with a mainstream song and off your product flew to sell among lands and languages previously unknown.


Today we routinely interact with people across the globe. Tweets and Tumblrs and blog posts and comments can and do come from anywhere at any time (because it’s always 17:01 somewhere). It’s mostly asynchronous. But not always—my WordPress friend in Hong Kong responds to my morning posts (his evening) and I respond to his evening posts (my morning) and it feels like real time.

Marketers and advertisers want to promise a viral result from the work they do for clients. But the bar for viral gets higher every day: interweb participants stand amazed at less and less.

More realistic: go back to the old way of focus on the important people. In this we make sure our message can be carried in a style to which our target audience is accustomed. Making sure our messages are sticky for the primary and secondary audiences we care most about is better than shooting for viral. And the first step toward sticky ideas is to simplify (not the same as dumbing-down) so the idea is quickly grasped and possibly even elegantly presented.


This simplifying process is a natural result of collaboration. Just explaining an idea in the course of a normal conversation is a step away from Teflon toward sticky. That simple act of saying it aloud helps you realize what works and what doesn’t: it’s all written in the face of the person you are explaining it to.

Start with a simple collaborative conversation to begin to move toward sticky.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

When Walking To The Podium, Remember This.

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Resolved: “You are gonna dig this.”

No one will argue that public speaking is petrifying. On this we all agree. Even seasoned performers routinely get the nerves before they walk on stage. In my limited experience, the one thought that calms nerves and spurs me forward is that something I’m about to say will help someone.



This occurred to me recently in working out the details for launching ListenTalk. Someone suggested a party and my first reaction was, “Ugh—I hate being the center of attention. No thanks.” But on reflection I found myself at a decision point: do I want to give my best effort toward helping this book succeed or will I follow natural impulses and just drop the published book off on Amazon’s front steps, ring the doorbell and run. Because if I do the latter, I am guaranteeing a narrow audience.

On further reflection, and perhaps with a bit of divine intervention, I realized the message of ListenTalk is much more about this hope I’m starting to entertain: that readers will begin to happily engage in and explore their own daily conversations with something of a treasure-hunter’s gusto. That’s the good thing I want readers to understand. That’s the thing people are gonna dig—once they get it.

So, for those about to engage in public speaking, or for those looking for motivation to move forward with some public task, ask yourself: How am I helping the person I’m about to engage?

It’s always good to refocus on the other person.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

August 20, 2014 at 9:38 am

How To Talk Like Superman

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Please, put the cape away.

Not so much the cartoon character, but think of the raconteur who magnetizes with stories and wit and rhythm. Or think of the person you go to when trying to sort some thorny issue. These are the people you find entertaining or interesting at least partly because they listen to you. And partly because you hear something useful from them.


That’s how to talk like superman: listen closely to what someone is saying and then respond with stories and probing questions that drill down a bit—staying focused on what you heard. To the person you are talking with, you just may be summoning superpowers. That’s because we never know when a casual word may be the linchpin that connects two or three sets of thoughts that set a life in motion.

We all have stories like this: the guy we talked with casually at the end of a club meeting mentioned a guy to talk with at the company we were interested in. We talk with that guy and he mentions someone else in the company…and then you find yourself in the company. Your online application and discussions with HR led nowhere, but a few conversations with the right people and you are in.
David Rock’s Quiet Leadership offers solid pointers about gathering the superpower of helping others learn what they already know. He shows how to help people make connections.

Please use your superpowers for good today.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

August 13, 2014 at 11:05 am

ListenTalk to the Publisher Today

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One cover concept

One cover concept

So begins my publishing journey.

More on ListenTalk here.


Written by kirkistan

August 8, 2014 at 8:42 am

…The…Slow…Talker…. So Boring.

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What can you learn from the slow guy?

Q: My colleague is the slowest talker in the world.

Each sentence he forms takes forever and we can all see where he’s going long before he gets there. I’m tempted to take up knitting whenever he makes a point in a meeting. We all finish his sentences.

Is that so wrong?

Not every conversation is electric quick.

Not every conversation is electric quick.

A: Some people want to be sure of what they are saying. For some people the internal editor stands with a bullwhip as words cower by the tongue. It could also be your colleague is intimidated by your work team. Do you or your team tend to jump in to argue or quickly quibble about word choice?

Consider counting to ten (or 50) when your colleague speaks.

And consider not finishing his sentences.

Being heard is a basic courtesy we offer each other. When we slow our listening to the pace of our conversation partner, we extend a bit of tangible grace and we demonstrate this person has value—no matter how boring they are. Maybe waiting in expectant silence will begin to change our slow-talking colleague. Maybe he will begin to feel more confident and less like he’ll be mugged for his word choices.

But even more importantly, waiting and expectantly listening trains us to listen for more than words, with more than our ears, to more of what might be going on. We’re used to instant, but not all of what we have for each other lends itself to instant. People need to process words and experiences and thoughts. If we rush them to the end, we likely speak for them, with our words, not theirs.

If your slow-talking colleague drains you with his long pauses and predictable boring comments, consider limiting time with him, just to save you both hassle. But when with him, give him time.

You may be surprised.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

People hate me. Immediately. (Dummy’s Guide to Conversation #21)

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Can I have a conversation even if I’m in customer service?

Q: Help: I’m in customer service and my conversation partners are harried, angry and nasty. The moment I speak, they hate me and the company I speak for. Conversation is no engine for me most days.


Am I my company’s keeper?

A: I’m sure you’ve found that a quiet, buoyant response to explosive negativity is a good first step. It is nearly always good to avoid matching anger and volume with anger and volume. If you can help your conversation partner feel heard you’ve accomplished a huge thing—especially when your company really wants to hear (your firm does want to make things right, yes?). Repeating what the person said is common in customer service circles these days and is a useful tactic in the rest of life as well. Repeating what someone says without any rhetorical or sarcastic flourishes is a useful moment in saying and hearing.

What other tactics do you practice? I’d be curious to hear them.

But don’t despair: conversation can still be an engine for you, despite each day’s avalanche of problems. Here’s how: consider each conversational event a moment to serve rather than looking for “Thank you.” Because that’s exactly what this is about: how can I (company representative) help you (respected customer) get some satisfaction? There can be immense joy in helping someone. You can create your own meaning by adopting that purpose. And it really works best with no strings attached: you can derive meaning whether or not your hear “Thanks!” or “You changed my life, Mr. Customer Service Guy!”

Some of my favorite people routinely live in this subversively helpful way and their attitude is infectious, possibly even life-giving.

See also #6: Listen to other people’s stuff


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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