Five Questions for Fred Dust, author of “Making Conversation” and former Senior Partner and Global Managing Director at IDEO
Thomas Watson, Sr., President of IBM from 1914 to 1956, coined the phrase "Nothing happens until a sale is made." But a sale doesn't just happen; you must make it happen. And that often involves having good conversation skills. In this blog post, I interview Fred Dust, an expert on creative conversation.
Suppose you want to succeed in life, business or relationships. In that case, you must cultivate and master your conversation skill no matter how long you have been having conversations that matter.
Most of us think we know how to have good conversations with people. But there is a lot involved in developing creative conversation skills to move things forward. I learned this from reading Fred Dust's outstanding book, "Making Conversation." Conversation is like breathing. We all do it but hardly pay much attention to it. As you will learn in the book, your success often depends on how effective you are in designing creative conversations.
Fred Dust has become an expert in designing creative conversation from his life and work experience. When he once had a meeting with the Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, Dust gained valuable insight about conversation that "designing slower dialogue may actually allow us to solve big problems."
According to Dust, a creative conversation must move things forward. He writes in his book that "It must help us shift from thinking and talking into the act of doing. Agreement cannot be enough; action is required… [It] must work to resolve differences, must explore hard issues, and must be aimed toward a positive outcome."
Dust applies what he learned about the design aspect of conversation, working as a Senior Director and Global Managing Director at IDEO, a global design and innovation company. A good design of a conversation consists of seven essential components: Commitment, Creative Listening, Clarity, Context, Constraints, Change and Create.
Spend time and practice these seven components of creative conversation. You will start having good conversations and will start moving things forward, even a sale.
I want to thank Fred Dust for answering the questions and Lindsey Armeen for facilitating getting this blog post completed.
Q: How much preparation do you go through before any meaningful conversation you are going to have? Can you share an example of preparation you did recently before having a conversation? How did it go? Do you do pre-mortems before having a conversation and post mortem afterward?
To begin where you end, I don't tend to call things pre-mortems and post mortems as that
assumes that the conversation has already died.
In my book, I talk a lot about setting the space ahead of time. Thinking about context and the
explicit and implicit rules of the conversation and most especially committing to the
conversation. When we think about 'preparing' for a conversation, our natural default is to
think -"What is it that I am going to say?". And what I am advocating for is sort of the
opposite. Spend your time thinking about everything but what it is you are going to say.
For example, is the conversation taking place in an environment and setting that is conducive
to the outcome you are seeking? Before every team meeting, I would always clear the room
and the whiteboards of everything non-essential. Everything that might distract from what
our conversation was centered around. But I even still do this with my husband before dinner
every night. We clear the table of everything.
Or even more simply, ask yourself if you are committed to the conversation. Not committed
to being right. Not committed to the answers you want to hear. But committed to giving of
yourself fully at that moment to the other person/people in the room.
Q: How should one design a conversation during a job interview?
Here is what I usually recommend to people I coach. You can tell me what you would do to make the conversation design better.
Intro -- Brief two to three-minute statement that includes the following:
● Value you can deliver to an employer
Middle: Focus on one to three problems you can solve that will add value to a company
● Validate that you understand the job with the interviewer
● Address any concerns interviewer may have about your ability to do a good job
That's a really great and useful template. Every interview is nerve-wracking no matter who
you are, and so preparation templates like this are often the best way to cultivate a feeling of
confidence vis-a-vis preparation.
But it reminds me of a story one of the guys on my team told me about when he was a
Producer auditioning actors for parts that taught him a great lesson about interviews. That
lesson was; make a genuine connection first, worry about memorizing the lines second.
Often the very simple question I will ask someone in an interview is; tell me your origin story,
like you we're a Marvel superhero. That's because like the producer, I'm looking to see if this
person fits the part, do they have a good connection with what the job will need.
Clearly, job interviews are not acting gigs. Preparation and gameplans like the one above are
super important. But I tell people that being completely present and available to the
conversation, creating a real human connection with the person you are talking with, often
goes just as far if not further than the polished interview. So why not do both!
Q: When you write in your book that conversation "must work to resolve differences, must explore hard issues, and must be aimed toward a positive outcome," do you mean from both sides? If so, then a conversation you are talking about is really a negotiation?
Again if you say negotiation, you see negotiation. I feel like the word makes a conversation
sound hostile, it's why I don't use it, but in fact, no, I don't really mean negotiation.
Our conversation scripts are operating without our "approval" or without our conscious
awareness of them\ all day long. So my goal is just to help people get better at noticing those
scripts, so they don't unintentionally derail or prevent a productive conversation from
To get to your question, when we say "negotiation," for many of us, that word evokes car
salesman or FBI hostage negotiator. And while both of those things can be illustrative
examples of kinds of conversation, their connotation is mostly adversarial, which is a script
I'm trying to steer us away from.
I say this because I am not a postmodernist. I don't believe all language games are power
games. I believe that language games can also be mutual discovery games and communion
games. So good conversation is about exploring both where tension and alignment points
are, figuring out why they're there, and then seeing what if anything we can do about it. That
is a negotiation of sorts technically, but it's also so much more than that. It's a collaboration
and a journey too.
One final note on that point, if both parties are acting in good faith and are committed to the
conversation but cannot resolve a tension point... I tell people that that's ok too. The idea I
try to get across in the book is that it's ok to arrive at those moments. But you have to try
Q: With short attention spans, how can you make it easier for someone to listen to you? How do you keep it short, simple, and impactful? Should you use simple sentences? Should you keep repeating the main message you want to convey? Should you not assume that the other person knows what you know?
I LOVE this question, thank you. Some of the best feedback I have been getting from the book
is centered around this topic which surprised me at first but makes total sense in retrospect.
Our days feel compressed. We are on zoom nonstop. Our time and attention are fractured. And
it is more difficult to stand out over the noise.
So in light of that, my advice to people is two-fold.
1.) One of my entire chapters is devoted to clarity. Make things simple and accessible.
We are drowning in word-salads and corporate lingo and legalese. Clarity creates
lasting impressions in the listener's mind and makes it so the conversation stays
accessible to the people who need to access it.
2.) I tell people to get good at telling what I call "illuminations." Illuminations are short 2
minute stories that capture the essence or spirit of what you are trying to convey and
reveal to the listener something about you. All illuminations should have four things
in common. Number 1, they are short. Number 2, they should end where they start.
Number 3, they should all have a twist or a surprise baked in them, and Number 4...
well in the spirit of Number 3, you need to read the book to find out.
Q: To move things forward, should you ask "What can we do?" instead of "What do you think?" so the other person has to address what you can do together to advance something?
Oh yes, I love this question as well thanks again. One of the guys who works for me is a big
neuroscience nerd, and he always wants to talk about left-brain/right-brain synchronization
and activation, and I just always remind him he's forgetting my chapter on clarity. He would
say that we need to get out of left-brain analytical/rigid thinking where conversations can get
hung up. Instead, I would just say; we need to get into proactive doing. Simply put, if you
can't talk with someone, if there is just nothing you can agree on, then go make something
with them. Do something with them. Build a barn. Bake bread. Clean out the garage. Play a
Both of these are getting at the same idea, of course, it's just my way of phrasing it is more
Books Recommended by Fred Dust
Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking: A CookBook by Toni Tipton-Martin
The stories will reveal elements of history, surprise as well as sustain you in remarkable ways.
Jane Austen Novels:
Pride and Prejudice
Sense and Sensibility
If you want to see how witty and powerful conversations happen and how gossip can change the world.
Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right by Mary Gentile.
Mary goes deep into what allowed whistleblowers to call out injustice with some surprising revelations on how and who can do it.
Fred Dust’s Contact Information
Fred Dust’s Appearances Discussing “Making Conversation”
Making Conversation: Seven Elements of Meaningful Communication by Fred Dust
Host: Chris Voss
How to Make Meaningful Conversation
Host Mary Stack - GBH Forum Network
Host: George Hammond - Commonwealth Club if California
The Unmistakable Creative with Srinivas Rao
How to have the most challenging conversations of your life
Curious Minds at Work with Gayle Allen
CM 180: Fred Dust On Making Conversations Better
Happen To Your Career
Make Better Conversation: Key Lessons To Connecting With Anyone
The Conversation Factory with Daniel Stillman
Making Conversation with Fred Dust
I am an author, speaker, career success coach. I guide people thrive on high stakes stage whether it's for a job interview, career advancement, a sales presentation or a high-stakes speech. I am the author of a practical book on speaking titled Winning Speech Moments: How to Achieve Your Objective with Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere. The main idea of the book is that if you want people to remember your speech and take action, you must create a winning speech moment. Please download the free speech checklist I created that I always use to create a winning speech for any occasion.
Please contact me if you would like to thrive on high stakes stage. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-847-9877.
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