Don’t Be a Bore

The-secret-of-being-a“Summarize,” said The Wise Guy as he continued working on an art deco design.

“But I’m trying to give you the picture so you’ll understand,” I would say.

“Just give me the facts,” Wise Guy would add.  “I’ll ask questions if I need to.”

“You won’t know when you need to!  You’ll just think you know.”

Countless sources of scientific testing prove our poor listening abilities.  How much detail is too much?  How much “summary” creates slippage and assumption?

I have friends who describe situations so scantily, I’ve been left wondering which of the three “she”s threw the bowl of soup on her husband.  Which “they” did the nasty deed just described?  Then there was a “he” who was a vitriolic perpetrator while the other “he” was a beloved hero.  I ended up confusing the two, much to the storyteller’s chagrin.

When do the sound bites end up biting the butt of effective communication? Have we become such impatient sots that we won’t take the time to listen to a story?

My father, of Irish background, told stories with ample detail.  I loved hearing about the endless challenges presented by flora and fauna as he helped open the oil patch in Alberta.  The excitement of producing oil overshadowed any concern for nature – if, in fact, concern even existed.  Dad’s hero status grew as he described ingenious methods of building a road across a mile of muskeg or through solid rock.  His stature matched my current feelings towards astronauts when he would describe how his crew built a town site and gave it a name: Cynthia.  The name curled it’s way around my imagination and flowered with enchantment.  In reality, in its early years, the town would have been a mud hole with wooden sidewalks and makeshift buildings.

As I matured, Dad’s details seemingly became more pronounced, “Let’s see…was that a Thursday?  No, by gar…it must have been a Wednesday because that was the day the mail came.”

“Dad!  Just tell the story!” I’d say. I’d swear to never be so boring or repetitious.

Years have passed.  Dad’s gone to another realm and I’ve been exposed to the many dangers that lurk in the habits of poor communication.  I find myself asking many questions as a listener.  As a communicator, I want to clarify, explain and confirm.  Describe.  Establish.  Define. All too boring!

Today, when I saw Voltaire’s quote, a cloak of guilt fell over my shoulders.   I renewed my pledge to summarize…to stick with the facts.  I’ll stay away from adverbs and emotionalism.  I’ll remember…it doesn’t matter if the house is conceived as pink when the real one was blue.

I once attended a play that portrayed how detail does not guarantee the truth.  In the  early 1980s, my husband and I attended a performance of a Japanese story, Rashomon, at a small theater-in-the-round in Vancouver.  The play opened to a violent crime being committed. The rest of the play consisted of testimonies from four different witnesses; each with unique observations and opposing points of view.  No one agreed.

Even my husband and I couldn’t agree on details of the crime.

I see journalism was also influenced by the play.  It adopted a phrase known as the Rashomon effect  which means “observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.”

Who knows what prompted Voltaire to produce the quote?  Was he fed up with writers or speakers?  Perhaps he needed a new way to pass on the essential message for all wordsmiths:  cut!

I want to tell stories responsibly.  May the storytelling gods keep me from committing boredom.

What do you think?

Please stop saying "sit".

You never bore me…as long as we’re walkin’.



13 thoughts on “Don’t Be a Bore

  1. Interesting debate, Amy ~ both extremes are frustrating to the listener. My Dad used to tell marvellous stories about his life as a veterinary surgeon in the 1920’s and 30’s. I loved them but could see my mother sighing behind his back ~ guess she’d heard them all before. Listening to her was a constant struggle to work out who said what, to whom and where, so I would soon lose the plot! I agree with what you say about eye~witness accounts of the same event ~ Martin will pick up on details of features, while I couldn’t tell you if a person wore specs or had a beard ~ but I could probably guess at what they’re feeling! 🙂

    • I pick up feelings, too, or some unusual feature. But don’t ask me what colour the eyes were or if he was wearing a hat.

      One time, Jacqueline, I saw a man sitting across the room in a public place. I couldn’t remember why he was so decidedly familiar, but I knew exactly what he would do with his hands as he spoke and listened. And he worked them precisely and as uniquely as predicted. Yet I knew nothing about him.

      It felt creepy…how could anyone be so intimately familiar; yet be a total stranger?

      Eventually it came to me…we’d both attended a business conference the previous year and he had been sitting at a distant table set directly in my line of vision. I can still picture the graceful way he gestured with his hands.

      My mother communicated well. Having majored in English at University, she loved words and a well turned phrase. Because of her vocabulary, I have to be careful. Hearing her use “big words” consistently, they became familiar. I use them too easily. Unfortunately, I connote when I need to denote!

  2. I think there’s a difference between providing the details of a story that make it come alive like your Dad was so skilled at and overwhelming people with words. Kinda like the 20 minute sermon because, after 20 minutes, you are basically repeating yourself?

    • Isn’t that a fact?! It’s fun doing a little inventory with trusted friends to check out this boredom factor – ’cause I like a lot of different subjects. Amazing what I learn…seldom the expected. I hope they’re being honest. It has to be a good sign when I don’t see them doing what I do when I get bored…right stage exit! 😀

  3. I think there is a huge difference between precise description and detailed description. Getting lost among the he said/she saids is not a result of insufficient detail; it is a result of vague word choice. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that I prefer writing to speaking. I’m not a great story teller and even many people who craft imaginative stories fail to use appropriate identifiers in speech. It is much easier to catch these vagaries in the written word. I have little patience for stories that drag on beating a dead mouse or spinning a top without getting to the point.

    Descriptive language that pulls in the senses and creatively paints a picture or inflames and emotion is another story. For example, I stopped and reread and admired this line several times: “The name curled it’s way around my imagination and flowered with enchantment.”

    My training in technical writing gave me a keen appreciation for sparse prose. There is so much to do, so much to learn, so much to think about. It is no wonder we tend to skim superfluous words. I often catch myself inflating with adverbs, adjectives, and cliches and then I just want to bury my head in shame.

    I love your ever-questioning mind, Amy.

    • Thank you, thank you, Linda! I know you help writers so your input is greatly appreciated – especially since you bring your good sense along with your knowledge.

      Dad could cut a great phrase. He’d plant it in the midst of stories making me not want to miss a word. Example: “We knew Larry would never get lost in the bush because we knew the bush doesn’t swallow devils.” However, one had to suffer through the detail…!

      My writing instructors showed us the value of good poetry. Then when I came across Madeleine L’engle’s prose, I adored her style and technique. From her book on writing, I have not forgotten, “Smooth as stone, clear as glass, and clean as bone.”

      One has to be careful while thinking about the yin and yang of detail…a monstrous fear could grow. Words could become imprisoned and never feel the joy of tumbling off a tongue or falling gracefully into a reader’s view.

  4. I enjoyed this, provoked a lot of thoughts. Sometimes I think I am boring, give too many details and think people really care. I am trying yo be better, more concise, answer directly without too much embellishment.

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