Sunday, August 2, 2009

A conversational tool

Coffee conversation this morning, over the hissing of the steam machine.

"They have a prompt"
Somewhat hungrily, a touch of greed, "A plum? Who has a plum?"
"Plum? No, prompt, a prompt"
Definite grumpiness at the withdrawal of the possibility of a snack, "Who does?"
Impatience creeping in, "They do"
"Who? Oh they? They have a prompt!"

There is a lesson to be learned here. An important lesson about human communication.

The power of repetition. Don't knock it till you've tried it. The next time someone does not appear to comprehend some piece of wisdom that comes sailing out of your mouth, don't bother rephrasing, paraphrasing or explaining. Just repeat the same sentence. Again. And again. And yet again. You can try varying the volume if you get bored. Play around with the emphasis. On each repetition give a different syllable its day in the sun. Experiment with tone. Or pitch. The success rate of this tactic will surprise you.

I've given it some thought. Here's why this technique is successful:

a. Headphones. The noise associated with modern living. Ear wax. People hear less than they used to. Its not that they don't comprehend, they just did not hear. Give them a second chance.

b. People are lazy. It takes effort to actually listen. To pay attention. To analyze what someone has said, to rummage in the attic of your head for some forgotten context, to snap out of your pleasant daydream and be dragged kicking and screaming back to the hallway conversation. People try and make you do all the hard work, provide the frame of reference, perhaps throw in a little joke to make it more palatable, work on an analogy. The greedy ones will even expect a metaphor to be included in the package. Repetition is your defense. It forces your audience to do their share of the work.

c. People are not always smart. Sad, but undeniably true. It has to be said. If your audience belongs to this category, repetition might be the best tool in your arsenal. It requires little effort on your part (you can plan your grocery shopping list, recite poetry in your head, try to find a word that rhymes with retard - all while you say the same sentence out loud sixteen times). This gives the slower ones time to catch up with the conversation.

Try it. And remember to be appropriately grateful when it works.

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