See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

What is Owed (CiS Part II)

I want to start by apologizing to everyone who checked in last week looking for new posts and was disappointed. I’m still recovering from my somewhat sudden vacation to Orlando, Florida and the attendant 36 hours of driving back and forth, but that isn’t much of an excuse. This doubly true since this, the next part of Communication is Service, focuses on the primary duties of a service oriented communicator: that of not wasting the audience’s time. So once again, I am sorry, specifically for wasting your time.

Let’s get back to basics for a moment, because there is a lot of room for confusion here. Communication is service, and the best way to measure whether or not words coming out of someone’s mouth is a service is to see if it is wasting the audience’s time.1 Take for example a teacher giving a lecture in English, but the entire class speaks only Spanish (further assume that this is not some sort of ESL immersion technique). However justified the teacher feels in yammering on, if the student’s can’t understand, they might as well be playing kickball. Their time is being wasted, the teacher is not serving the students, so the teacher is failing as a communicator. Saying that the communicator has an obligation not to waste the audience’s time is not the same thing as giving the audience what they want – the teacher doesn’t serve the audience by giving the student’s infinite recess and easy As – but its pretty close.

I begin with this obligation as a preliminary expectoration2 as you’ve already heard a lot of nonsense about what the primary obligations of various communicators are. It’s usually a variation on “our job is to speak the truth” (the capital T is occasionally implied as well) with some nuances, like “to lead” or “to educate” or “to call it like I see it” or some other seemingly noble calling. Well, that’s dead wrong. In the third season of the West Wing, Aaron Sorkin spoke through a fictional poet, saying

You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don’t get to decide what truth is.3

To put it another way Sorkin has no right to capture his audience and force them to serve as Sorkin’s dummies as he blathers on about truth. If he manages it great, but that’s just this side of a happy accident. This isn’t to say that truth-telling can’t be a valuable service – it is to say that the communicator must captivate first. In practical terms, I tell forensics students and competitors they have to first answer two questions for the audience, every time. “What are you talking about, and why should I care?” It is the obligation of the communicator to convince the audience care – not the other way around. And what does the communicator get in exchange for humbling themselves into servitude?

Nothing. The audience owes you nothing above and beyond what they owe any other person for your attempt – and I stress, attempt – at communication. You’re here to help the audience, not for them to help you. That means no whining about your audience looking at their phones,4 not being well-educated enough to understand you, or too selfish to care. Be captivating enough that they will pay attention, be clear enough that they don’t have to hack through a thicket of SAT prep books to understand you, do what it takes to make them care.

So, to review: Communication is a form of service. The first duty when serving your audience is not to waste their time. In exchange for you not wasting their time, they owe you nothing. Once you’ve got that mindset, we can start to talk about the mechanics of effective communication.

Footnotes

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