Conversation skills: How to bring charm back to banter.

Charm Offensive

Millennials Have Dreadful Conversation Skills. Here’s How to Fix Them. 

Charm Offensive

Millennials Have Dreadful Conversation Skills. Here’s How to Fix Them. 
Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
March 22 2015 10:54 PM

Charm Offensive


How to become an intensely interesting interlocutor.


Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock.

People are talking funny. Men are mumbling and grunting à la True Detective. Women are shrieking and bleating like confused, pampered sheep. And—here comes the really insane part—both genders are somehow managing to either grunt or bleat while maintaining a mysteriously blank affect. The emotionless facial expressions displayed by today’s young moderns during conversation are borderline Warholian. (I went borderline Warholian once. Nasty condition, but nothing a bit of light rebirthing and a wheat germ colonic couldn’t cure.) It’s so not charming.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

Conversational charm is very much the antithesis of Warholian detachment. Conversational charm requires animation, parry, and dazzle. Conversational charm needs uppers, not downers. It’s about hamming it up and blurting out great aphorisms. It’s about passionate engagement, ribald observations, heartfelt empathy, and the occasional whoopee cushion. It’s wildly un-Warholian. My goal, as you have no doubt guessed by now, is to banish the grunt, the bleat, and the blank—to bring back conversational charm.

Step One: Check your tone


Start by make an objective evaluation. Record yourself on your phone and then listen. Better yet, just ask your pals for a brutal assessment: “Am I McConaughey grunty? Am I bleaty and Kardashian-esque? Am I a Dietrich or a Diller—as in Phyllis?”

Ladies first: Chances are your voice is rather more plangent than you realized, especially if you have been raising children. (Subtle vocal stylings do not work on recalcitrant brats.) Don’t panic! Dragging your voice out of your nose and back into its natural home—your chest and throat—is far easier than you think …

Step Two: Sound like Simone Signoret

Select a vocal icon with a deliciously modulated film-noir voice—Joan Crawford, Anne Baxter, Barbara Stanwyck, take your pick—and watch a movie or two. My personal recommendation would be Lauren Bacall. No apologies for the old-school, old-queen movie references. Film noir femmes had beautiful voices. Today’s thesbots? Not so much.


Let Betty Bacall’s magnificently modulated instrument guide you toward vocal charm. Remember: Out of the nose and into the chest. Imitate her colorations and nuances, and breathe, and, if necessary, smoke too. After a matter of minutes your grating shriek will be transformed into a mesmerizing, cinematic sonata.

And now, lest I be accused of mansplaining, let’s give the menfolk a shot of tough love. Fellahs! Your voices must, if they are to ever become audible again, travel in the opposite direction to those of the ladies. Less grunty chest, more throat and nose. And let’s not forget to vanquish the Warholian detachment. Instead of channeling Andy, how about serving up a little 20th-century British stagecraft? Declaim like Gielgud! Enunciate like Olivier!

Step Three: Naughty Nancy, Naughty Nancy, Naughty Nancy

Now that y’all have found your new vocal registers, road-test those little puppies with the following classic tongue twisters: “Rubber baby buggy bumpers.” “Hot toast. Hot Toast. Hot etc.” “A big black bug bit a big black bear.” Video the results, and marvel at the charming transformation.

Chapter One
Conversation Skills
Chapter Two
Personal Style
Chapter Three
Cubicle Chic
Chapter Four
Domestic Cheer
Chapter Five
Digital Charm & Conclusions

Step Four: Banish the boredom

You and your new voice are now ready to address the most important, deal-breaking component of conversational charm: conversational content, by which I mean knowing what’s dreary and what’s not. For centuries conversational charm was viewed as a minuet. Observe the fuddy-duddy Downton Abbey choreography and the rigid etiquette (avoid arguments, gossip, and politics; keep your legs nicely crossed; and don’t waive your hands about like a seal) and c-h-a-r-m, a veritable river of honey, would be the inevitable result. Here’s the truth: Twee conventions and dusty formality are never charming and never were. Knowing what’s boring and what’s not is, circa 2015, the only thing that matters.

The ability to edit out the quotidian is, I am sorry to say, currently in rapid decline. When everything can be reduced to a text line, everything is, and then everything starts to look the same. Mundane activities acquire the same weight as fascinating occurrences. Since fascinating occurrences are infinitely less frequent, mind-numbing minutiae prevail. The proliferation of mind-numbing minutiae has, horror of horrors, spilled over into actual live, face-to-face conversation: “So the train was running late, which was OK because it gave me time to get a coffee, but they had run out of half-and-half, not the first time. Anyhoo, the train … ”

Charming conversation is the opposite of turgid, autobiographical minutiae. Charming conversation requires a blitzkrieg of massively profound ideas. A charming conversationalist issues large talk gambits with questions attached. For example: “I dreamt I was watching a woman putting on gloves. I found it strangely arousing. Have you ever experienced anything like that?” Or: “I spend 60 percent of my day in an existential crisis. You?” Or: “I still feel compelled to hide my TV in an armoire. Is this a self-loathing bourgeois trait?” And finally: “I was asked out on a date by an unlicensed fitness professional. Should I hold out for a licensed one?”

One final dingleberry of advice: In order to cut through the cackle and make your gorgeously modulated voice heard, it will behoove you to jump-start every conversation with a charming signature opener. A signature opener will galvanize your conversee and declare outright war on tedium. An ultracharming friend of mine precedes every conversation by addressing her conversational target as “TREASURE!” Part nickname, part blandishment, part rallying cry, “Treasure!” is a wake-up call. When you hear, “Treasure! How are you?” you, the treasure in question, know that you must gird up for a rip-roaring cracker of a conversation.

Over the years I have deployed a series of signature openers. “Flower!” worked great in the early ’70s. By the time punk rolled around, I had graduated to “Cherub!” Cherub was abandoned when my friends started thinking I was commenting on their middle-aged weight gain, at which point I graduated to the more innocuous “Petal!” where I remain today. Feel free to steal my Petal. Better yet, hurl some suggestions of your own into the comment box.