The Art of Conversation - what the 1950s can teach us about social media

I recently came across one of those quaint old etiquette guides from back in the days when manners mattered and people were so keen to learn how to avoid causing offence that they’d buy a book on the subject.

As I glanced through an article on the art of conversation, which was clearly written with cocktail parties and formal dinners in mind, I was struck by how entirely relevant the guidelines are today, in the age of social media.

Let’s take a look:

1. Listen more than you talk
This is so important in social media interactions. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of viewing our social channels as a place to push a message out to our audience, but social media ‘listening’ is absolutely vital for learning about who our audience is, what’s important to them, what they do and don’t like and what they best respond to. There are excellent tools to help with your social media listening (also known as social media monitoring) such as Hootsuite, Buzzsumo, BrandWatch, Sprout Social and Google Alerts.

2. Have topics at the ready
The point is to be prepared. How many times have you gone on Instagram with the intention of posting something interesting, inspiring, or intriguing, only to find that you wasted half an hour scrolling because you didn’t have a clear idea of what your post would be? Planning ahead, keeping a list of ideas as they come to mind, and using an app like Plann or Preview to develop your posts ahead of time is the way to go.

3. Tailor the conversation to the listener/audience
You’re probably familiar with the adage, ‘when you speak to everyone, you speak to no-one’ which poetically points out that ‘everyone’ is not your customer. Take the time to figure out who your audience is - and sometimes that simply begins with figuring out who your audience is not - then tailor your conversation to them.

4. Take your turn
A conversation is, by definition, a talk between two or more people; the point being that it’s a 2-way discussion. Online interactions are no different - think of social media as a telephone, not a megaphone. By inviting your audience to respond, then really hearing and understanding them, you’ve allowed them to take their turn.

5. Think before you speak
We’ve all done it; things have been extra busy and we haven’t posted in a while so we succumb to the temptation to post something - anything - just to keep our presence felt online. Or hitting ‘send’ on an email that we thought was clever and witty, until we remembered an important reason why it would not, in fact, be well received at all. Take that extra minute to step back and think before posting.

6. Don’t interrupt
Interruption marketing was a (thankfully) short-lived fad which was quickly replaced with conversational marketing, for good reason: does anyone enjoy being interrupted? Conversational marketing is based on building trust and consistently delivers better results and higher conversation rates.

7. Don’t talk to one person when conversing in a group
We do want the reader to feel like we’re speaking directly to them, but businesses should also be wary of conversing too deeply with the first few people who start to engage with their brand online. For each person leaving a comment, there are many others who may be actively listening, and could eventually feel excluded by what may come across as an ongoing private conversation. Keep it light and open.

8. Don’t engage in one-upping
Share your successes, share the wins and share those 5-star customer reviews by all means, but let’s keep it dignified, shall we..? As your mother probably told you, blowing out someone else’s candle won’t make yours shine any brighter.

9. Don’t overshare
We are constantly being told that personality sells and personal stories are important for brand building but don’t feel too pressured to overshare. I recently made my first online purchase from Intentionally Sustainable. When I checked out their ‘About’ page, I found it quite refreshing to read: ‘I’m a person with a brand, not a personal brand.’ The owner doesn’t subscribe to the current trend of blending their personal story with their business and feels it’s much more important to direct attention to their ‘Why’ (which is to reduce plastic pollution by offering reusable alternatives to single-use items). If putting your own face to the brand makes you seriously uncomfortable, please know that there are always alternative ways to tell your story.

10. Be Natural
You may have noticed a recent shift away from the overly curated and filtered aesthetic on Instagram. The days of faking it may (fingers crossed) be behind us and audiences are leaning towards a more natural vibe. People are recognising, calling out and rejecting the stress that comes with trying to maintain perfection online and audiences are responding positively to authenticity - with all its quirks and flaws.

We may think that life is very different now and the way we interact has changed, but it seems there are still some universal truths about being human that technology can’t alter and - reassuringly - manners still matter.