Since we are in an election year, let’s throwback to November 2016 (another election year) when my flight from Kumasi to Accra got delayed due to adverse weather conditions. I went to the Airport restaurant to grab a snack and catch up on my emails.
I was busily attending to my emails when someone said ‘hello’ and sat at the table next to mine. I lifted my head, and to my utmost surprise it was the then vice-presidential candidate, Alhaji Mahamudu Bawumia. We locked eyes as he smiled, and that was the first time I was seeing him in person. It was at that moment I started having a debate contest in my head. The motion for the debate was “whether I should initiate a conversation with the Vice-presidential candidate or not”.
Interestingly, I made flimsy excuses as to why I should not engage with him. Notable among them was the fact that some ‘Men of God’ had prophesied a straight victory for the incumbent government. That meant there was no point engaging with a man whose political party had already lost an election in the spiritual realms. The other reason for not initiating a conversation was my Big Ego. Why should I initiate a conversation with him when we are all ‘Big Men’ going to board the same flight? The local flight had no divisions like international flights. No first-class, business class or Economy tickets, so we were all ‘Big Men’ in our own right. Due to these ludicrous reasons, I did not say a word to Dr. Bawumia.
A few weeks later, his party won the 2016 elections and he went on to become the Vice President of the Republic of Ghana. In hindsight, I should have initiated a conversation; perhaps, who knows, I could have been the youngest minister of state by now, or an Ambassador to the United States of America. Dreams do come true you know. Had I known, as they say, is always last. I had the chance to strike a conversation with the second-most powerful person in the land – and I blew it. The next time I saw him was at an event, and I dared not try getting close to him because his security was tight.
Tim Ferries, an American entrepreneur, once said: “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have”. Conversations are the lifeblood of all relationships, be they personal, professional or political. Refusing to engage with others hurts our chances of building better personal, professional and social relationships.
Sometimes initiating a conversation can be uncomfortable especially when there is a long, awkward silence, but just a simple ‘Hello’ can start an exciting conversation because you rarely know where it will lead. This is supported by a quote by Amadeus Wolfe who said: “Sometimes, the greatest adventure is simply a conversation”.
To have great conversations with strangers, you must strive not to be limited in a specialised area. You should know a little about politics, sports, current affairs etc. Having knowledge in all areas can be the fuel in sustaining conversations. Over the years, I have had great conversations with many strangers and prominent people from all walks of life. I once had a conversation with a University of Ghana Professor on a flight, which ended up getting my brother an internship opportunity. These experiences have propelled me to share my seven strategies for starting and sustaining great conversations. Note that these strategies must come into play very quickly lest you miss your chance of creating a better impression.
- Have a purpose for the conversation
A conversation without a game-plan is like going to the grocery store without a list. Your purpose can be to improve your professional network or to close a sale in the future; make sure to identify that before you initiate the conversation.
- Be friendly and have a positive attitude
Smile when you see a familiar face or someone you want to talk to. Your attitude can affect theirs.
- Have a strong Introduction
Your introduction will set the tone for the conversation. I recommend you start by asking open-ended questions. An open-ended question cannot be answered with a Yes or No response. Research has it that the most effective conversation starter is a simple, “Hello, how are you?” It is super easy, but it works! Perhaps I could have asked Dr. Bawumia what he was doing in Kumasi and the rest would have been history.
- Listen attentively and bookmark
Listening and learning are as important, if not more important, than talking and telling. Listening will enable you to bookmark key aspects of the conversation. Bookmarking is an advanced technique that I love – but it does take some practice before it becomes second-nature to you. Bookmarks are verbal markers you say to make it easier to follow-up or have something to talk about in the future.
- Find the Sparks
Once your conversation has started, you need to keep it going. Come up with topics, ask intriguing and intelligent questions to get the person excited. A simple question like ‘What is the best part of your Job’ can trigger dopamine in the person.
- Tell Captivating Stories
People love to hear stories; however, the stories should relate to what is being discussed. You must ensure you do equal talking and listening by asking for their stories as well.
- Have a strong Exit
Sign out from the conversation as strong as you started, because your last impression is as good as your first impression. Your exit is equally as important as your introduction. Conversations do not always have to end with you asking for their contact. Sometimes I go on LinkedIn and add the person to my network, and then engage with them online. This, I believe, shows you have done ample research on them; which in turn nurtures the relationship and builds trust.
The art of conversation is a skill you must keep learning if you want to succeed in your career.
So, maybe the next time you are on a flight, at the bus stop, at an event, in the elevator or even in a taxi, consider starting a conversation with the person beside you. Start that conversation now, you do not know where the person next to you will be in the future. Never forget that it is not whom you know, but rather who knows you that makes the difference.
If you are reading this post and you happen to know Dr. Bawumia, please let him know I want a second chance to dialogue with him.
The writer is a marketing professional who is passionate about marketing and mentoring the next generation of corporate leaders. He is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), United Kingdom, and holds an MBA in Business Administration from the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA).
Email: [email protected]