Do Presentations make any difference?
In Class, the Audience Weighs In

Do Conversations make any difference?

Dave Pollard, How to Save the World

This followed on from Dave Pollard's thinking on Presentations.

Now I've read it, I won't dare say anything for days.


Minutes, anyway.

Lately most of my meetings have been one-on-one, so I've started to look at conversations with the same skeptical eye as presentations. How much do we get out of them really, and are they truly about communicating or actually about something else? So far I'm just listening to others' conversations, whenever I get the opportunity. Since I'm male, you will appreciate that this is very difficult for me to do! But I'm also finding out (as most women already know well) that it can be very entertaining, if you pay attention to the whole conversation and not just to the words being said.

I'm starting to think conversations are as useless a medium for effective intellectual communication as presentations. It's too early for me to present any unscientific conclusions, but here's what I've observed so far -- I'd love to hear what you think about all this:

Linguistics professor Deborah Tannenseems to have a valid point when she says women and men (with some notable exceptions) converse in entirely different ways, and they converse differently with members of the opposite sex than with members of their own.

Conversations have a myriad of complex but unspoken cultural norms, styles and rituals (taking turns, pausing, nodding, apologizing for interrupting or misunderstanding etc.) When two people with different norms, styles, or rituals try to converse, or when a third person ignorant of the styles or rituals shared by the other two tries to enter a conversation, the result is both comical and tragic. A form of violence, even.

Most people don't appear to listen to what they themselves are saying. Many conversations include someone saying "I didn't say that" when in fact they did. I suspect if people listened to a tape or video recording of their conversations they would be stunned. They might never say anything again!

Most of the real communication in a conversation is not in the words. It's in the nuances of body and eye language. It's in the tone of voice. It's in the pauses. It's in the physical proximity or distance of the conversants.

Many effective conversations appear to be really interviews. That entails specific roles for the two conversants, with the interviewer's role being the more difficult and more important. If one person is mostly asking questions and the other person is doing most of the talking, it's an interview, not a conversation.

Conversations with more than two people are generally either parallel sequences of two-person conversations, or moderated conversations, where one person is clearly directing the conversational 'traffic'.

Conversations would, I think, be much more effective if we had a ritual of having each conversant state upfront what their personal objective for the conversation is. I appreciate that in some cases this must be done tactfully: "I've wanted to meet you since Mr. A told me that you... ", or "I'm looking for some help with..." In the absence of such a protocol, a lot of initial conversations exhaust an enormous amount of participants' energy trying to figure this out tacitly.

From watching online chat (the only written medium that in my opinion is fast and immediate enough to really qualify as 'conversation') and listening to young people especially talk, what people seem to want most from conversation with friends is reassurance. Everyone is always fishing for compliments and confirmation, and, unless and until they clearly know and trust the offerer very well, dubious of the offerer's motivation when they get them. Few people, it seems, are really looking for advice, debate, or 'constructive criticism' in a conversation. But many seem enthusiastic to offer these things anyway!

You can tell almost immediately whether participants in a conversation trust each other or not. If you want to observe conversations where there is trust, go out for dinner a lot, and avoid offices and bars.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston