Royal Festival Hall is a prestigious venue on the South Bank of the Thames in London, noted for it’s innovative programme of dance and music and frequented by people like me for it’s free WiFi and comfortable sofas. Normally it’s home to world class musicians and performers but yesterday, for a very short period of time, it was home to my first ever period of busking. It’s a story about communication and how we speak when we lack language.
Yesterday was a busy day: as all the seats were taken i had to resort to sitting on the floor, back against a glass partition, iPad perched on my knee and trying to wrap up a phone call. As i was sat there i became aware of a guy trying to catch my attention: he was a bit younger than me, gesticulating wildly and carrying a large drum.
It rapidly became clear through his exaggerated gestures that he was deaf, and that he was particularly interested in the guitar that i was carrying. Thus ensued our conversation without words within which it became clear that he wanted to play. So, with no conversation and no plan, we started to busk. Different tunes in different times, i’ll admit, but nonetheless, making music.
Well it wasn’t long before officials moved us on, but it made me reflect on the nature of the experience: we rely so much on spoken language that it’s rare to think about how we can communicate without it, but communicate we did and with ease.
So much spoken or written language is just fluff, detail surrounding the core messaging, that we can communicate effectively even when the sound is severely degraded, in busy rooms or bad phone lines. We don’t need to understand every word to understand meaning. Indeed, we only need to hear a fraction to get the gist. Take written text: you can cover up the top or bottom fifty percent of written text on any given line and still read it almost perfectly. Our communication is full of redundancy, to the point that, even without spoken language, we were able to communicate through gesture and movement.
The sheer volume of superfluous language came up in a conversation this afternoon too: why corporate communications and learning often are far too long. Filled with words that we don’t need to communicate effectively and that just pad out the page. The impact of overly long communication is really to cause people to disengage, so it’s a key skill of learning design to avoid it!
I’m interested in the different languages that we use to communicate: the language of movement, of imagery, of song. Each different from the spoken or written word, but all part of our overall ability to share meaning, to bridge the spaces between us, to have conversations that use more than simple words.
Sometimes it’s only when we’re forced to communicate in situations when communication is difficult that we realise how adaptable we are. We are so good at communicating that we can do it even when words fail.
We should try, in learning design, to recognise that less is often more, that meaning may be more important than verbosity, that even complex ideas can have simple explanations told as simple shared stories.
So what did i learn from my experience? That communication is wonderful, that it can be rewarding in even the most unusual of situations, that music brings us together, that words are less important than we think, that there is a joy to sharing meaning, however it’s shared.