A new book on conversation gets a tougue lashing from Steve Denning

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 28, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

Last week I ordered Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller from Amazon. I’d heard the author interviewed by Phillip Adams on Late Night Live and it sounded interesting. Today I read Steve Denning’s stinging review which I thoroughly enjoyed. Denning didn’t like Miller’s inability to clearly make the case for declining conversations; his arguments lacked evidence according to Denning.

Denning, presumably based on Miller’s book, makes a number of useful observations about good conversation which are worth remembering when we sit down next to our next friendly chat.

  • an open-minded exploration of multiple viewpoints makes for a good conversation
  • a single-minded attempt to destroy others’ ideas kills conversations
  • good conversations include amusing banter
  • conversation works best among equals
  • conversations have been a rare phenomenon

This is a timely topic for me because in one hour I will be recording a podcast with Patrick Lambe, Nancy White, Matthew Moore and Kaye Vivian where we plan to have a series of informal conversations on knowledge management related topics. I’ll let you know how we go.

I would also say that I have noticed that people in organisation rarely seem to have (or make) the time for conversation. Most talking is done to achieve a task which must reduce the ability for people to explore new ideas, innovate and revitalise their thinking.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Shawn, interesting post.
    Regarding conversations in corporations. I don’t think they are entirely absent. But, to me, they seem to occur in the gaps between “real work” in the form of corridor chats, coffee engagements, friday night drinks, and even at the social events included as part of a work or professional conference. I think that last example is the best I can come up with in terms of organisations formally acknowledging and encouraging the value of conversations.
    I’m looking forward to the podcast(s). What’s the RSS feed?

  2. I agree, conversations do occur and I guess we need to think of ways to encourage them because it’s in these conversations that stories are told, values are conveyed and relationships are developed. These ingredients are essential for ‘real work’ to get done.
    I will publish the RSS in a few weeks time when we have the podcast ready to go.

  3. Nerida Hart says:

    I think there is a compliance mentality taking over in organisations where talking is seen as not doing real work. Some very process oriented managers think knowledge sharing can only take place via a piece of software or something that is formally recorded, without understanding the nuances of a conversation.

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