Mort Stein walked into his local drugstore in Newport Beach a few weeks ago to pick up a package of cotton balls. He asked a bored-looking stock clerk to direct him to the proper aisle, then walked back over, cotton balls in hand, and asked another question.
"Excuse me," he said. "Could you tell me if these are good with chocolate sauce?"
The stock clerk gave Stein a puzzled look, then broke into a grin, "Probably one of the few grins he'd had all day," Stein says, smiling himself as he remembers the incident.
Since then, Stein says, whenever he goes into that store, the clerk hits him with a new recipe for serving cotton balls--on crackers, with cheese, whatever. They have quite a conversation going.
And that, Stein says, is exactly the point.
The amusing opener is just one of the techniques Stein will be offering in "Payoffs and Spinoffs Through the Art of Conversation," a six-week class beginning Monday at Newport Beach's Vin Jorgensen Center.
Other points to be covered include conversing with the opposite sex, handling loudmouths and how to use small talk judiciously and effectively.
Conversation is a neglected art these days, says Stein, who is a consultant on the subject to businesses and teaches doctors, lawyers and managers how to converse effectively.
One reason for conversation's decline, he says, has been the proliferation of high-tech communication methods. "As technology increases, conversation decreases," he says.
Too many of us spend our days staring at computer screens and our nights staring at TVs, Stein says, leaving precious little time for human interaction, whether with co-workers, families, friends or strangers.
"People are forgetting how to communicate the old-fashioned way," he says.
When we do get together with others at social or business gatherings, he says, "a lot of people feel a little left out. They wonder, 'How do I get into the conversation without sounding silly?'
"It's surprising how many people fall into this category. They're good, intelligent, well-educated folks, but they're not comfortable in social gatherings."
But as Stein teaches--by example--sounding silly can often be a good way to begin a conversation, or enter an existing one.
"You want to put people at ease," he says, "to make them feel better in your presence. They may be nervous, uptight, overworked or knocked out by the freeways. You can make them relax by making them laugh a little bit."
What if you're the type who just can't tell a joke? You jump the punch line, or your delivery just isn't compelling enough? Not to worry.
"People tend to associate humor with jokes," Stein says, "but jokes are the poorest kind of humor. Leave jokes to the professionals. They know how to use them."
Instead, he says, concentrate on situational humor, talking about amusing situations to which others can relate. Or use the cotton ball approach--something unexpected.
But humor is not the only way to make the people around you feel comfortable, he says: "I'm a great believer in the art of the compliment. People deserve to be noticed, and they have a terrible hunger to be noticed. You can never go wrong by noticing people.
"Then you get people who say, 'But I don't want to sound insincere' (in giving compliments). Then don't be. Be honest. With everybody, there's something nice you can say."
The next step, Stein says, is to offer your conversational partner "a little information that could be of use to them. You want to leave people saying, 'I love to be around (that person) because he always gives me something interesting to think about.' "
"But what do you talk about?" Stein's students ask him. His advice: Turn off the TV and start reading. Even if you have just 15 minutes a day to spare for a newspaper, go through it, pick out even one story, so you will have something to talk about.
"You must take the responsibility for helping to create good conversation, not simply to react," Stein says.
Encourage the people around you to talk. Ask what they think about what's going on in sports, current events, the course of interest rates. "You'll never get hurt asking questions," he says.
Then there's small talk. "It's nice to have a little in the repertoire," he says. "But I like to use the metaphor of the Lazy Susan. At the average party, the stuff in the Lazy Susan is likely to be peanuts, potato chips, the same old thing.
"In your conversational Lazy Susan, you want to have the equivalent of things like Brie cheese, smoked oysters and pate. Seek out information to restock your mental Lazy Susan, and you can leave the realm of small talk."
But how do you avoid being boring, even with a stockpile of facts?
"Take those facts and try to put them into a larger frame of reference," he says. "Try to deal with the question of what does this all mean."
Although some of us may be the wallflower type when it comes to conversation, a vocal minority do not have that problem. They talk whether or not they have anything to say, and whether or not anyone is listening.