Communicating effectively is one of the most important life skills you can have. Whether it’s a networking event or an evening with high society at the governor’s gala, here are a few tips to help you engage in stimulating, intelligent conversation.

Play to Your Strengths

Nobody’s an expert on everything, but great conversationalists recognize when the discussion turns to a topic they know. For example, I can do a really good Foghorn Leghorn impression. Here’s a potential exchange with an opportunity to work that in:

GOVERNOR: It’s a pleasure having you at my gala, basketball superstar LeBron James.

LEBRON JAMES: Why thank you, Governor. I just finished shooting Space Jam 2, where I play basketball with my good friends Daffy Duck and Foghorn Leghorn.

ME: It’s funny you mention that, LeBron James. I actually do a really good Foghorn Leghorn impression.

Were you able to tell when I chimed in about my really good Foghorn Leghorn impression? If so, you’re off to a great start.

Open with a Compliment

Sometimes the hardest part of the conversation is starting it. Initiation may seem intimidating, but you’ll find it’s a lot easier by opening with a simple, straightforward compliment. Take this example:

GOVERNOR: It’s a pleasure having you at my gala, unheralded Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

STEVE WOZNIAK: Why thank you, Governor. I invented the computer but don’t get credit for it for some reason.

ME: I also really admire your Foghorn Leghorn impression.

STEVE WOZNIAK: Foghorn Leghorn impression?

ME: It’s funny you mention that — I actually do a rock-solid Leghorn myself.

Notice how after I compliment Steve Wozniak, I let the conversation continue its natural flow.

Steer the Conversation

Instead of waiting to discuss their preferred topic, skilled conversationalists guide the dialogue toward their strengths using the subtlest of cues and insinuations. Take this:

GOVERNOR: It’s a pleasure having you at my gala, big-time cello man Yo-Yo Ma.

YO-YO MA: Why thank you, Governor. I loved doing my cello all over the place. In fact—

ME (interrupting): Hey, who was that Looney Tunes character that starred in 29 Merrie Melodies from 1946 to 1964?

YO-YO MA: Do you mean Foghorn Leghorn?

ME (perfect Foghorn Leghorn): Son — I say, son — you are about as useless as a back pocket on a T-shirt!

Listen, Listen, Listen

One thing I’ve noticed about conversations is that a lot of them seem to involve other people saying things that aren’t about you or your really good Foghorn Leghorn impression. Respond accordingly:

GOVERNOR: It’s a pleasure having you at my gala, ape genius Jane Goodall.

JANE GOODALL: Why thank you, Governor. My whole deal is that I know way more about chimpanzees than most people.

YO-YO MA: I actually know a lot about chimpanzees myself.

STEVE WOZNIAK: I’ve never heard of a chimpanzee before. I’m too busy with computers.

LEBRON JAMES: Then it’s settled. We all have varying levels of chimpanzee knowledge.

ME (blurting yell, though still perfect Leghorn): I say, I say, it’s so quiet around here you could hear a caterpillar sneakin’ ‘cross a moss bed in tennis shoes!

JANE GOODALL: What was this gala for again?

Note how even though there was no obvious opportunity for me to work in my Foghorn Leghorn impression, I did it anyway.

Know When to Exit

Sometimes, there’s nothing left to say.

GOVERNOR: It’s a pleasure having you at my gala, legendary multimedia artist Yoko Ono.

YOKO ONO: Why, thank you, Governor. By the way, have I ever shown you my pitch-perfect Foghorn Leghorn impression?

ME: …

YOKO ONO: I say, I say, this boy’s more mixed up than a feather in a whirlwind!