The battle for audience attention (2): why stay awake in conversation?

Yesterday's televising of Supreme Court proceedings got me thinking about my attempts to use recordings to study courtroom language - and how conversation analysis had led my later works to focus on public speaking and presentation more  generally. 

This is a continuation of yesterday's excerpt from 'Lend Me Your Ears':

… becoming an effective public speaker depends on having as clear a picture as possible of the key differences between conversation on the one hand, and speeches and presentations on the other. The most important of all of these is the dramatic change in our motives for paying attention that occurs as soon as we stop conversing with other members of the audience, and settle down to listen to the speaker of the day. When I ask audiences if any of them ever find it difficult to stay awake during speeches, presentations, lectures or sermons, a typical result is that 100 per cent of them put up their hands. When asked how many have trouble staying awake listening to what someone is saying during conversations, the typical result is zero per cent.

The first statistic is proof that everyone knows that speeches and presentations have a tremendous capacity for boring audiences out of their minds, and that holding the attention of an audience is a major challenge for speakers. The second statistic points to something that people know when they think about it, but probably never give much thought to most of the time: most of us have little or no trouble in staying awake while engaged in conversation with a small number of others. This is because there are powerful incentives to pay attention built into the way conversation works. And these incentives are underpinned by implicit
rules that are not written down and formally taught, but are understood by everyone capable of having a conversation.

One at a time
The most obvious feature of conversation is that we take it in turns to talk: one speaker says something and, when that one’s turn comes to an end, a next speaker starts, and so on until the end of the conversation:

Speaker A: ——————|
Speaker B:                       |——————|
Speaker C:                                             |———————|

If someone else suddenly starts speaking when you are still in the middle of your turn, it’s natural to feel annoyed. In fact, you’re likely to regard anyone who trespasses on your space as ‘rude’ or ‘impolite’. You are not only within your rights to complain, but are equipped with the necessary vocabulary for referring to the
misdemeanour: the words ‘interrupt’ and ‘interruption’. When you complain of being ‘interrupted’, you are actually drawing attention to the fact that a basic, though implicit, rule of conversation has been broken: only one speaker should speak at a time, and others in the conversation should wait until the end of any current turn before starting the next one.

Occasional failures to observe this rule may be tolerated, but anyone who makes a regular habit of starting to speak in the middle of other people’s turns soon finds that there’s a heavy price to pay. Your reputation will go into a nosedive. At best, you’ll be regarded as impolite or inconsiderate; at worst as a pushy, domineering
control freak who’d rather ‘hog the conversation’ than listen to what anyone else has to say. If you’d rather not be seen like this, you have a strong incentive to pay attention at least closely enough to know when the previous speaker has finished, and when you can launch into a turn of your own without being accused of interrupting.

Coming in on cue
The incentive to listen during conversations isn’t just a matter of paying close enough attention to notice when a speaker gets to the end of a turn, as there is another rule about when you can start the next turn. Fail to get this right, and people will have another reason for wondering about your manners and motives. You only
have to think of how you react if, after greeting someone with the turn ‘Good morning’, the other person doesn’t reply at all.

Charitable explanations are that they must be half asleep, or perhaps a little deaf. But you’re much more likely to start worrying about why they aren’t speaking to you, what you’ve done to offend them or what’s gone wrong with the relationship. So the only way to stop other people from thinking such negative thoughts about you is to make sure that you start speaking before the silence has lasted long enough to be deemed ‘awkward’ or ‘embarrassing’.

This raises the question of just how long you’ve got before the silence starts to make things difficult? The answer is that you can’t afford to let the silence last for more than a split second. Research into conversation shows that silences of less than half a second are not only long enough to be noticed, but are enough to start us thinking that some kind of trouble is on its way. Studies of how people respond to invitations, for example, have found that an immediate reply usually means that the speaker is about to accept, whereas a delay of even a fraction of a second means that a refusal is on its way. The same is true of the way people reply to offers of various kinds: positive replies start straight away, and negative ones are delayed. So the safest way of preventing people from getting the wrong impression is to pay close enough attention to be able to start speaking as soon as possible, and certainly before the silence starts to get embarrassing.

Showing you were listening
Another extremely important reason for listening in conversation is that you have to be continually at the ready to say something that relates directly to what was said in the previous turn. Even a small lapse in concentration can cause you to say something that leads the previous speaker to conclude that you had not been paying attention, are not in the least bit interested in what they were saying, or that you are just plain rude. It often prompts accusations, arguments and conflict – so much so that it may well be at the heart of large numbers of domestic rows. If these could be traced back to their original source, many of them would
surely be found to have started just at that moment in a conversation when one speaker says something – or perhaps says nothing – that gives their spouse or partner the impression that he or she had not been listening.

The threat of having to say something
Conversational success and failure obviously depend on our continually maintaining a very high level of attentiveness to what others are saying. We have to keep listening closely enough not to interrupt, closely enough to come in on time and closely enough to be ready to say something that relates to the previous turn. In short, the ever-present threat that we might have to speak next amounts to an extremely powerful incentive for us to stay alert and wide-awake during a conversation. It also points to a fundamental reason why audiences will be in a very much lower state of attentiveness when listening to a speech or presentation.

(To be continued with 'Why audiences fall asleep')

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