People Are Bad At Listening, or, Why Smart Politicians Don't DenyComplications Ensue
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Friday, September 18, 2015

One thing I have learned is that the audience is a terrible listener. They are pretty good at noticing things they see. But they don't listen so good.

So, first of all, if you want them to absorb a bit of information, it's probably a good idea to throw it at them a couple of times.

"The thing is ... she was thirteen."

Second thing is, the audience often seems to form visuals from the words you use before they process the grammar. So if I write, or say, "she's not a redhead," the first image that's going to pop into the audience's mind is a redhead. And that's what sticks. At the moment they hear or see "not a redhead," they may process the negative, but ten minutes later, they may only remember "redhead."

So I try not to use specific, visual negatives in dialog or in action description. For example, I'd avoid writing, "For once, San Francisco Bay is free of fog." That sentence is bad visually because half the audience is going to just read, or hear, or remember, "San Francisco Bay ... fog." Instead I would take care to write, or have a character say, "Across the bay, he could see the wind rippling in waves across the grass on Mount Tamalpais."

I mean, obviously there's no fog, who's even talking about fog?

This is why politicians are smart to change the subject rather than deny. We remember Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook," partly because he was a crook, and partly because the most powerful word in that sentence, the takeaway, is the word "crook." What people took away from that sentence, to some extent, was "Richard Nixon ... crook." Same thing is going on with "I did not have sex with that woman": aside from its deceitfulness, it makes you think about Bill having sex with Monica, which you probably didn't want to do. Clinton was much better in 1992 when he refused to confirm or deny whether "we've had our difficulties" meant that he was a hound dog; "I think the American people get it," is all he would say, and we did.

Don't put images in people's heads if you don't want them there; it's very hard to get them out again.


Smart and insightful! Thanks for this... and of course it works the other way round if you want to plant something in the audience's mind without explicit stating it...

By Blogger VLucas, at 10:49 AM  

Great post (and point)! Thanks, Alex.

By Blogger Trevor Mayes, at 2:51 PM  

Who can ever forget Christine O'Donnell, Delaware Republican candidate for Senate, definitely not a witch?

By Blogger Kat EV, at 5:11 PM  

I think this is why it's proving so hard to dispel, "vaccines cause autism." Just the mention of the association hurts the cause.

By Blogger Joseph Price, at 2:35 PM  

Yes, that's related to the Big Lie technique. People are bad at weighing information. They tend to look for a compromise. So if a bunch of uninformed people say vaccines cause autism, people take them seriously, even though their opinion is not worth the opinion of one doctor or one researcher. People assume that "it must be partly true," even though it does not need to be partly true at all.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:59 PM  

Just noticed this from you in Sep 12 column: "I doubt that after four years running the State Department, she's a less convincing presidential candidate than she was in 2008." And what stays with me is that she's an "unconvincing candidate". Which sounds actually true...

By Blogger anvor, at 1:43 AM  

Think about the number of life forms that have vision but no speech. Visual processing is extremely efficient compared to language comprehension. The reason why repetition of verbiage works is neuroplasticity. Even if we don't agree with an idea multiple repetitions of it will reprogram our brain in the direction of that idea.

By Blogger Unknown, at 12:06 PM  

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