By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
We all want to talk to relatives, friends, and the world at large; we have a deep need for talking from infancy on to our dotage when we become garrulous. Watch an infant struggling to make words, almost desperately trying to communicate needs and desires to parents and others. Those early humans who could not master this art probably perished early; talking was the sign they were human and could be admitted to the tribe and species; that they were not like other animals that could vocalize but not form thoughts into language. After we invented writing, cuneiform or other forms, then printing, the typewriter, and computer our rush to words accelerated, until we now we live in an immense profusion of words written and spoken tossed out into the universe unabashedly with books, magazines, radio, television, cable, computers, and laser printers. Moreover, we have a flood of other communications from those artists who express themselves in other senses: with pictures, music, aromas, tastes, and dances. But how much of this stuff we put out in words and images, tossing it out like steer manure, is really interesting to our intended audience? What is really interesting in our talk and writing? It is that which stirs and excites the imagination, feelings, and thinking, answering questions our audience holds important for their lives.
Granted, we hold different things important and exciting, as different as we are. You like sports stories, perhaps, and I like to listen to scientific news. Your wife enjoys fashions and my wife celebrity gossip. Your son is thrilled by Spiderman’s adventures, and my daughter by Little Red Riding Hood’s. Yet, a common thread runs through everything we find interesting, and that is what I want to investigate. You can then tie this thread in with what you want to say or write, if you want to captivate your audience, instead of putting them in a dose. Lesson one: gear your talk or writing to your audience. You know now what to say to your wife and mine, your son, and my daughter. Tell me what you heard about the latest NASA space probe. Hey, friend, heard the score?
The score is: if the eyes of your listeners are glazed over, you’ve lost them; if their eyes are looking at the ceiling, they’re gone. Boring is the cardinal sin in communicating, or fornicating, common among cardinals, not the birds. When you talk or write you may make the worst possible use of the English language: be vulgar, be common, be ungrammatical, and even be rude. You will be forgiven if what you say is amusing, even though you may not get respect. Mark Twain wrote his masterpieces Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer largely in the Midwestern vernacular, a rough version of English, stories about boys having rude adventures. We forgave him, gave him respect, and lauded him as a literary lion because he was funny, wise, and interesting.
You will begin to be interesting if you wrap your talk in stories about people; your audience will be rapt in attention. People like to hear about people, doing good stuff, doing dirty, scandalous things, doing battle, suffering sin, defeat, and redemption, or just plain messing around doing goofy nonsense. This is so, because of our heritage, going back millions of years, when we lived as tribal animals or in a troupe with other early humans, barricaded ourselves in a cave around a campfire, listening to or telling heroic tales to tame the night until sleep came.
People seldom consider what’s interesting before they say something or put a few words in a letter. When we meet a friend, we say, “How are you?” And what do we get back? We get a litany of ills from our friend. “Oh, you know I had my gallbladder taken out. It had stones the size of golf balls. All week long my back has been killing me. My grandmother died two days ago; I miss her so much. She was a sweetheart.” It was different when we were younger. “Hey, how you been?” “Oh, man, I met this great chick; she’s a tiger in the hay.” As I and my friends have grown older I hate to ask the fateful question, how are you doing. I’m afraid of what’s coming. Now, when I’m talking about my operation–that’s different!
When people meet at parties and other places, they like to talk about an amazing number of trivialities in their lives: their dog Fyodor, how clever he is; their aunt Matilda who gained twenty pounds on her last cruise; their kitchen sink getting clogged; their favorite candy dish that got broken, and onwards to utter nausea. But operations and illnesses are great favorites with the older set. Now unless you are funny like Art Buchwald, the humor columnist, writing about his failing kidneys and last days at the hospice, please shut your mouth up about your medical problems talking to me. Talk over these problems strictly with your physician. I am just not interested; nobody else is, not even your physician; but he gets paid to listen.
Believe me, nobody is really interested in your operation unless you did much more than lie under anesthesia and let the surgeons cut and sew. We are interested in stories of conflict, contests, struggle, and victory, or defeat—drama. Or, a screwed up, mock, fight, playfully and lightly portrayed—comedy.
Try this story for drama, a World War II story we heard at a party from a man captured by the Gestapo in occupied Greece. He was 18 and was caught carrying leaflets for the resistance. The Gestapo beat him senseless several times asking for names of people in the resistance and he pretended to be innocent as best as he could. He told them he found the leaflets in an alley and kept them for toilet paper, such luxuries being scarce at the time. The interrogators did not buy the story although he stuck to it with determination.
Finally, after several brutal beatings, he passed out and went into a coma, so the beatings stopped for a while and he was sent to trial. There the German authorities convicted him to death, but his sister came and testified the leaflets were hers. So she was arrested and put in jail too, together with his parents. He would have been shot, except that the Nazi party’s birthday arrived and word came from Berlin some convicted prisoners in each occupied country were to be released as a goodwill gesture. Two men were to be selected from jails in Greece by drawing lots. Our man was one of the two that were freed. He survived to see the end of the war, graduate an engineer and live a long, successful life.
Such drama, or comedy, is what we like; and we like to hear or read something new, different, unusual, or bizarre even. If you have something new and complex to say, begin with a sentence or two discussing what is known and familiar to the audience, then go logically to the more complex matters one thing at a time. To be entertaining, serve up something unexpected. Serve suspense: that is the feeling in anticipation of what’s coming next in the story. Create a mystery, an enigma, a big question about the hero’s situation that needs to be answered, or else. Readers lap this stuff up; they can’t put the book down to find how the story ends. Don’t disappoint. Serve up a good, thunderous ending, a grand finale: brilliant fireworks galore blasting away.
After so much for the climax of your story, we can’t neglect the beginning, known as the hooker. It is called the hooker, that first sentence or paragraph, because it must display a little shapely leg, a little white bosom, and arouse curiosity for more good stuff further along. An enticing beginning is essential to telling your story without your talk being interrupted or your writing being tossed aside. What good is a fine interior to a house you are selling or renting if prospects drive by and are gone because the front yard is a mess? You may serve the finest food in your restaurant; people will not walk in to eat it, if the façade of your business is unappetizing. So it is with your story with a dull beginning.
After a snappy beginning, your readers or listeners like to have surprises, happy ones. Don’t tell them what they are anticipating to hear. Give them a warm welcome when they walk into your story, with lights out, going brilliantly on and many rousing yells. And best of all, stir up their feelings and strong emotions: laughter, tears, even mock terror will do, as in Stephen King’s books.
So far, we have looking at content; let’s now turn to manner or style. Style is the frosting on the cake and the fresh fruit decorating it. You will interest more if you speak and write with enthusiasm, even passion, if you can stir that in your heart. You could have danced to Adolph Hitler’s speeches in the nineteen thirties without knowing a word of German. His addresses or harangues to the German people were charged with rhythm and passion, rousing cultural pride, well deserved, and arrogance, not to be forgiven, in his adoring audience. They cheered their heads off with, “Heil, Hitler, Heil Hitler!”
On the other hand, if you want to be boring, speak in a monotone, repeating stuff without the intent of an effect, and use a voice devoid of any feeling. To be even more boring and unpleasant, speak or write in disjointed, broken up sentences, without any rhythm or rhyme, using sentences of about the same length, never varying them with short or long ones.
There is much to the art of rhetoric and I don’t intend to get to all of it here. I touch only on the basic and most fundamental techniques.
Speaking and writing effectively, that is interestingly, is a problem for most of us in our lives with relatives, friends, and our community. An old friend of mine always liked to say there is a technique for solving any problem; find the technique and your problem is solved. If there is a single technique for arousing interest in your audience, it has to be sincerity in what you are discussing and for you first of all a genuine interest in your subject. If you are not really enthusiastic about your topic of conversation, you can’t fake enthusiasm with much effect on the audience.
So, if you have nothing to say about which you are enthusiastic, it is best to remain silent and listen to others; you may learn something thus, and at least you will not bore. Listening quietly, however, you may get bored by people who have not heard such advice as I am giving you now. In that case, relax and save your energy for a different encounter.