I’m one of those annoying people who likes to chat to my neighbours on an aeroplane. Oh no, you groan. They’re awful. All I want to do is watch a movie and they chat away about their cat!
But wait. Don’t judge me too harshly. I’ve had experiences throughout my life that have made me this way.
I’m a snap first impressionist. Many times, I’ve met someone for the first time, and have made a judgement about them. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. And what I’ve learned is that I’m often wrong about my first impressions, especially the negative ones.
What, you say? But surely you should follow your instincts?
Usually I’d agree, but apparently I have crap instincts when I’m meeting people for the first time; I can’t count the number of times I’ve met someone and judged them boring or silly or annoying on first impression, but later discovered they were actually pretty cool or interesting.
What I’ve learned is that there is something interesting about almost everyone. The guy I met on a plane once who was a natural gas salesman (yawn) turned out to be a political science major just like me who worked on the Jimmy Carter campaign the year he won the election in the US. And while that might not be interesting to you, it was very cool to me, and I’m sure he had other really interesting things to talk about that would have spun your wheels too.
I’m often inspired by the stories people tell me about themselves once I dig past the small talk, and I think you would be too. It just takes a little time and effort to get to know people, to find out who they are and what makes them tick.
It also means that you have to listen.
I’ve been helped in this by a career in journalism. It’s meant that I’ve had to learn to shut up during interviews, and let the person I’m interviewing talk. It might sound simple, but I did several interviews at the start of my career where I thought I’d had a great talk with a person, only to listen to the tape and realise I had hogged the entire conversation and got NO DECENT QUOTES.
So I very quickly had to learn to listen. And it’s been the one greatest tool that I could have learned as a writer. People are interesting – when you let them talk.
My husband always says that he hates small talk, because he hates talking to strangers about himself. I’m always reminding him that small talk isn’t talking about yourself, it’s getting the other person to talk about themselves. And all that takes is a few questions up your sleeve, ready and waiting for when you need them.
So my advice to you, if you want to be more creative, have more ideas, and learn about character and voice, is to talk to everyone, wherever you are, and whether or not you immediately click with that person. Ask them questions about themselves, and listen to their answers. You might be surprised at what you find.
But most of all, be interested in their answers. Everyone has something to say, and maybe the next person you talk to will be the one who inspires you to greatness.