Communicate to Manage Change
All communication is about managing change. Good communication prepares the audience for the right kind of change.
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I’ve said that the most important part of writing well is knowing why we’re doing what we’re doing. And last week I had an opportunity to chat with an excellent public speaking coach, Stephanie Silverman, who agrees. We developed the idea that most speeches and writing projects will have the best likelihood of success if the writer sets out with a twofold aim: to recruit and to empower.
This week I want to step backward just a little. I want to talk about the purpose of all communication, of every kind. That purpose is to manage change.
Page 1: Princess Belle and the large, pale creature.
Before I get all theoretical about it, let’s jump right to the concrete and practical. Let’s start this episode with the story of Princess Belle and her not very charming encounter.
She’s two seats to my left at a long table where a number of us are, between bites of pizza and bits of conversation, typing furiously on our laptops. It’s November, and that means it’s National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. We’re at a write-in at Empire’s Comics Vault. The place is bigger than I’d expected, and I feel dwarfed by it.
I’m meeting a number of my fellow writers for the first time, including Princess Belle, who’s about 20 years old.
I’ve asked Princess Belle about herself, and I’ve learned a lot, including that she speaks charmingly and greatly enjoys doing so. That was an hour ago, and I’ve returned to mostly minding my own business. I’m typing and typing and typing, when I hear a voice, a great and booming voice, a voice like that of a man but somewhat larger.
“So, you’re writing a novel, huh?”
And I hear the far smaller voice of the Princess. “Yes. I’m trying.”
I look to my left, and see the large pale creature, looming over the seated Princess and addressing her again.
“So that means you have brains. And you’ve got good looks. Nice combination.”
Oh, did I neglect to describe Princess Belle? Well, the large pale creature was right. We fiction writers are told not to take the cheap shortcut around description that I’m about to take, but the Princess makes it all too easy. Physically, she’s Audrey Hepburn at about the same age. Any difference is chump change.
She replies, “Umh, thank you.”
“So, I was wondering if you’d like to go out with me.”
[Sweet Brown: Then I ran out I din’t grab no shoes or nothin’, I ran for my life.]
Well, in truth, nobody ran. A whole tableful of writers and a few others are now looking at the large pale creature, but he doesn’t notice. It seems his four eyes are only for the Princess. Silent for a very long time, and too proud to beg us for help, she looks, alternately, at the large pale creature and her laptop. This is awkward enough that I’m wondering if someone at the table is going to bail her out. But, of course, we’re fiction writers. If it’s not really dangerous, this is the sort of thing we don’t interrupt but memorize.
If you’re extremely surprised at this man’s behavior, maybe there’s something in the concept of a “comics shop” you don’t understand. On the other hand, if you’re not at all surprised, perhaps you yourself need a bit of schooling in the protocols of courtship.
In any case, we will squeeze some sort of lesson from this lemon of an encounter. But not just yet.
Page 2: Comments from my listeners.
I’m delighted to report that my shameless begging for feedback has met with success. So much, in fact, that I can’t respond to all the responses. But I’ll take a few bits from the mailbag, not exactly at random.
Feedback item 1: Terminal Prepositions
Listener John asks: “what are the tools, methods or tricks to solving the problem of the ban on prepositions at the ends of sentences?”
My smart-aleck answer is to declare that banning terminal prepositions is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which you should not put.
My more serious answer is to go ask Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl. There’s a link to her podcast in my right sidebar. [But this link takes you to Grammar Girl’s discussion of terminal prepositions.] This is the sort of question she’s great at.
Well, if you’re too rushed to go over there, I can cover the matter here in a few words. The rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is a bogus rule. Ignore it. But do memorize the following: “Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.” That little gem exemplifies what you should avoid: Not ending a sentence with a preposition, which is perfectly legal, but ending a sentence with a word that has no function in the sentence at all. The same sentence without the final preposition runs “Never use a preposition to end a sentence”, and it makes perfect sense. As a sentence, that is. As a rule it remains a bad rule, the sort of nonsense up which nobody should ever have cooked.
But seriously, John, your question gives me an opportunity to say where I believe Word Shots fits within the world of language resources.
To wit: Word Shots is an advanced course. Grammar Girl does her work very well, and she’s a real help. My hope is to be as helpful as she is, but for people who already know more than 85% of what she teaches. My unhumble little podcast stands between her and those highly advanced language resources whose purpose is not to help improve your skills, but to display the erudition of the author or speaker.
So, for example, I love listening to Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast. And one can glean from it some real insight into language. Listening to it may improve your writing or speaking, but that would be an incidental benefit. It’s an advanced course, but not one with an explicitly practical purpose. In my podcast, although I may sometimes fly at a lofty theoretical altitude, my purpose is still to give an understanding of language and communications that will help my listeners improve at both.
Feedback Item 2: Ain’t nobody got time for a podcast.
From no fewer than three readers, I learn that people are reading Word Shots, as opposed to listening to it. Chris says she simply doesn’t “do” podcasts. Jenny makes bold to say, concerning listening to a podcast…
[Ain’t nobody got time for that.]
Brian didn’t explicitly say he doesn’t listen, but he gave away that he’s a reader by responding to something that’s on the blog but not in the audio.
And these three people give me a perfect opportunity to talk about how to consume Word Shots.
The answer is: consume it any way you can. Any way that feels right. I do considerable work to make it worth anyone’s while to listen or to read, or to do both. That includes putting a complete transcript of the audio on the blog.
But you should know that listening and reading will provide two quite different experiences.
If you only do one or the other, you just might miss something.
If you only read you may miss:
- The different voices of guests
- Sound effects
- Vocal effects
- Pronunciation, when pronunciation is the heart of the matter, and
- Outtakes and codas at the end that aren’t described in the transcript. For example, there’s a little miscue between Stephanie Silverman and me at the end of Episode 6. We found it a tad more funny than embarrassing, so I spliced it in right before the end of the final music.
So, that’s what you miss if you only read. If you only listen you may miss:
- Helpful hyperlinks that I add to the transcripts
- Images I’ve chosen to complement the text
- All the cool stuff in the sidebar, such as snippets from related posts on the companion blog, Maximum Strength Writing, and
- Headings that I sometimes add to break up the Saharan expanse of the transcript text.
So again I say, consume Word Shots any way you want. Every way is better than no way.
Feedback Item 3: Shaking up listeners.
The aforementioned Jenny sent quite a little sheaf of questions and comments she hopes I’ll respond to. Here’s one: “I read an article once about how purposefully using an odd word shakes listeners out of routine and into mindfulness.”
Well, that’s something I can respond to. And I’m going to bring the Princess back to help me.
Page 3: Communication As Change Management
So, back to the beginning. The purpose of every kind of communication is to manage change.
In managing change, there are two opposite purposes we might have. We might want to slow or prevent change. Or we might want to cause or hasten change. Virginia Postrel gave us handy words for these two poles: stasism is a bias toward no change or slow change, stasis; and dynamism is a bias toward more and faster change.
Much of communication is ritualization. And the main purpose of ritualization is to slow or prevent change. It’s to keep things in their accustomed places, to keep life on an even keel.
Although to an academic, ritualization may be very interesting, to someone seeking to provide advanced communication skills, it’s not something to spend a lot of time on. “How about them Yankees?” is typical ritualization, and while it may be interesting to a sociologist, if you need me to tell you how to say it, or when and where not to, you probably need more help than I can give.
Ritualization makes up a large part of our expense of communication energy, and I’m making the distinction between it and everything else, mostly just to say that the part of communication that I’m most interested in is the other part.
In ritualization, the connotations of words have more weight than their denotations. An effective ritual may involve incantations whose meaning is unknown to anyone doing the incanting. If the syllables are sung or chanted correctly, there’s nothing to them but connotation, and that’s all that’s required.
In episode 6, I introduced the idea of an opus. That’s a piece of communication that’s complex enough to require significant planning. One example I gave of a non-opus was a note asking one’s mate to pick up a loaf of bread.
Let’s look at that note for a minute. It’s too simple to be an opus. But it’s also not mere ritualization, is it? After all, its aim is to bring about change, such that here in the pantry which once was bare, behold, there shall be bread.
But how much change is involved, really? The fact is that in most households, the presence of some bread is not the exception but the norm. Thus to request the bread’s renewal is to request not a change but the setting of things to rights, the bringing of things back to equilibrium. On the other hand, if a wife wanted to talk her husband into giving up white bread in favor of something supplying a bit more nutrition and fiber, her communication might well have to be an opus. She might have to strategize before opening her mouth or setting pencil to paper.
Now, although I’ve said I’m not much interested in ritualization, in point of fact it’s unavoidable. Even in communications that aren’t mostly ritual, ritual is still involved. And that’s what brings us back to Empire’s Comics Vault.
When man meets woman and certain intentions develop, there’s an interesting change-management project underway, if the courage exists to undertake it. The courage only needs to exist on one side. In our little scene in the comics shop, one person wanted very much to change his relationship status. He put some real effort into it.
Page 4: What we talk about when we talk about courtship
But when we talk about courtship, we very often talk about ritual. And in our species as in many others, ritual is very much involved. So if courtship is such a major change project, why does it involve something that I’ve said is primarily stasist?
Ah, that’s because we don’t want to promise only change. Taking on a new relationship status (isn’t that a delightful euphemism?) is such a big hulking scary thing that we want it to come with assurances. We welcome the dizzy madness of new romance, but we hope that it will bring with it some whole new brand of steadiness.
[Paul and Storm: My love is a sailing ship, seeking out a friendly shore…]
In short, we want our stasism and our dynamism well-mixed.
Thus, for example, if you approach someone with an eye to romance, there are several subtle ways to assure him or her that, if anything interesting develops between you, you can be counted to be discreet about it. Pitching your woo in a voice that resounds throughout a building half the size of a football field conveys rather a different impression.
So, to Jenny’s comment: Yes, using an unusual word can shake up the reader. One might, for example, use the slang expression “chump change” in a context having nothing to do with money. But if the reader hasn’t found reason to trust you, such strangeness will only alienate. That’s why I say, over and over, that although to become truly good at writing, you need to graduate from grammar, I also say that you’ll need to keep studying grammar and write with an eye to getting it right.
Otherwise, when you introduce that bit of strangeness, your audience is tempted to flee. Your audience must feel “I’m putting my intellectual life in the hands of somebody who respects it and knows how to take care of it.” Fail at that, and you’re dead in the water, like the large, pale creature in the comics shop; your ship will never sail into the port it seeks.
I’ve just discussed communication as change management. And I’ve pointed out how, even when you want to bring about a major change, you’ll be effective if you also promise that certain things will remain steady, if you promise some kind of stasis.
Let’s tie this back to the previous episode. There, I talked with Stephanie about the two important goals of a well-designed communication: recruitment and empowerment. And this week I talked about the most important of all recruitment efforts: courtship.
In future episodes, I’ll discuss recruitment a great deal more. But for next week, let’s turn our attention to empowerment. I’ll talk about the single most important feature of communication that, when it’s done right, empowers your audience to take in and benefit from your message.
Until then, this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a great week and effective communication.
[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]