Can we talk?

That question has long been associated with comedian Joan Rivers, and as anyone who has watched her in action knows, she certainly can talk.

Sometimes she says more than we want to hear.

Being able to express oneself articulately is a goal to which everyone should strive. Especially real estate agents.

However, as with Rivers, enough is often too much. For example, a reader buying her first house shared with me her experience with an agent who only opened her mouth to change feet:

"My agent first tried to tell me that home inspectors who are members of the National Association of Home Inspectors weren't allowed to inspect in our area (which isn't true). Then she followed the inspector around the house with us and told him that everything he said was wrong."

"When he saw evidence of what might be a roof leak in a ceiling, she called her husband, a roofing contractor, who came over immediately and told the inspector that the stains were 'footprints.'"

"The inspector left after my agent brought in the listing agent and the owners, and they began to argue with him," the reader continued. "The owner's son threatened the inspector with bodily harm."

Of course, there is a much better way of dealing with people than this, but it requires mastery of the art of polite conversation.

That's where Susan RoAne comes in. She's the author of What Do I Say Next: Talking Your Way to Business or Social Success (Warner Books, $14).

The crux of her advice:

Conversation is an art, not a science.

If you like people, you've won half the battle for more conversational prowess.

The ability to schmooze contributes to personal and professional success.

Small talk is the most important talk we can do.

All business starts with conversation, she said.

"Conversation isn't part of a sale, but the heart of sale," RoAne said. "It is how you make people feel comfortable and make them feel connected. It establishes trust and rapport."

What do you say first? It's the same whether you walk into a room with two people or 200 people, but "you should plan and practice your own self-introduction" beforehand, she said.

Don't expect to be introduced by someone else, even if the gathering has a host.

"Everywhere we go, we are on our own," RoAne said. And that gives us the freedom to do what's best for us.

Rather than simply rattling off a meaningless title, spend those seven to nine seconds giving people the benefit of what you do.

"I don't say, 'I'm Susan RoAne, best-selling author and fantastic speaker,' even though I am," she said. Instead, "I say, 'I'm Susan RoAne, and I turn people into mingling mavens.'

"They always ask me, 'What does that mean?'" she said. "That helps people break the ice and communicate.

"Then I say, 'What about you?'"

Which is, of course, what you say next.

"When we give people a benefit, we give them something to build the conversation on," RoAne said. "They're more comfortable with you because they've actually started the ball rolling.

"You give them the gift of gab," she said. "And what you do to make people more comfortable can make us more memorable."

Part of conversation is bringing who we are to what we do, because people relate to who we are, she said. What we do, then, is often secondary.

For example, "How many of you ever had a bad haircut?" she asked her audience, who either acknowledged the question with murmurs of approval or affirmative head shakes.

"Then why does it take us longer to get rid of our hairdressers than our spouses?" RoAne asked.

Bad-haircut experiences help us relate to other people, she said.

"In an emotional, stressful business like real estate, making buyers and sellers more comfortable by bringing who you are to what you do helps them make conversation with you," she said.

Developing a network of people starts with conversation face to face, followed by e-mail, followed up by picking up the phone and hearing the person's voice and maybe having a cup of coffee someplace, she said.

Key the introduction to the event you are attending, because it helps people feel comfortable talking to you. A holiday party, a wedding, or other special event needs to have tailor-made introductions.

Such as the wedding RoAne recently attended.

"Hi, I'm Susan RoAne, and I'm the first girlfriend of the father of the groom," she said in introducing herself.

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