“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?