Do you make pictures when you speak? Watching the Grand Prix on TV, I found myself getting confused from time to time because of the way the commentator was describing the action. Let me give you an example of the kind of thing he was saying (not an actual quote).
Imagine you are actually watching the race, and get someone to read this aloud to you:
“Leading the race is Max Verstappen. In second place is Lewis Hamilton, third is Bottas, still on a one-stop strategy, using the super soft tyres, and the gap has widened to over 11 seconds, to the battle between Stroll of Racing Point and Vettel. Landon Norris is cruising along in sixth place, with Perez up from ninth to seventh. He’s catching up fast because his tyres are younger than Norris’s.”
How easy was that to take in?
It’s easy enough to take in the 1-2-3, because they are described as a list. But the next bit creates a totally different picture because it is described in a different way and actually interrupts your understanding of what is going on. It creates a succession of disconnected images. And when he mentions Perez he takes you on a detour, to an earlier part of the race that interferes with the image you are building of the leader board.
Making pictures with words
When making a speech or presentation, it is always worth considering the pictures we make with our words, and check that consecutive images are consistent with one another.
Effective communication depends on connecting with the way our listeners receive and understand what we are saying. That’s why triads and repetition work. Repetition reinforces the message.
In a written text it is quite attractive to change the way in which a list is described. Not so in a spoken text. If, in the example above, the commentator wanted to make a point about the gaps between drivers, he could have said:
“Leading the race is Max Vestappen. In second place, just one second back, is Lewis Hamilton, with Bottas third and only a couple of seconds behind him. Those are the three podium positions. Behind them the gap has widened to 11 seconds, to the battle for fourth place between Stroll and Vettel. Down in sixth place we have Norris, with Perez in seventh place, having started in ninth.”
Read both versions aloud and see which feels easier to understand.
All that is fairly obvious. But let’s take a big step sideways and consider why a commentator might use the language in version one. Would he describe the race in that way to someone sitting beside him? Almost certainly not. But if he did, and the person sitting beside him happened to be his employer at the TV or radio station, he’d soon be out of a job.
Because (in my hypothetical example) such a broadcaster would be motivated by a narcissistic impulse – “Listen to me! Don’t you just love my command of language?” Either that or he does not understand the difference between the spoken and the written language. He is not focused on helping the listeners understand what is going on. That’s what he is paid to do.
This brings me full circle to my repeated assertion that communication is not about Transmission. It’s about Reception – the way it is received and understood.
Of course, it’s easy to take pot shots at a sports commentator who has to describe live action and is always at risk of error – remember “Colemanballs”? (Examples: “Forest have now lost six matches without winning.” / “He opened his legs and showed his class!” / “That’s the fastest time ever run, but it’s not as fast as the world record.”)
However, it happens also in business presentations, in speeches and even in private conversations, when there is no excuse. And why does it happen? Because many people are unaware of the way we receive what they say. We make mental pictures based on our own personal experiences. Or rather, we try to do so. So a speaker needs to connect with that process.
Suppose you were reading a book about the pyramids in Egypt. The author shows a sketch of the location with North at the twelve o’clock position. A bit later he shows another sketch of the same location, to illustrate a different point. But this time the scale has changed, so have some of the details and North is at the nine o’clock position. How easy would it be to make sense of the two sketches?
Imagine you are telling someone how to go from your house to some distant destination. Would you describe every turning from the moment they left your front door? Clearly not. You’d start by asking, “Do you know how to get to such and such a place?” That enables them to start with a familiar image and then to visualise the progression from there.
When telling a person something new, just remember their implicit request: “Start with something I already know.” Then don’t change the picture. Just add to it and they can make the mental picture to match the one in your own head. Think in pictures and help others make the right ones.