March 10, 2007

The Proper Way To Scream

I went for a bike ride this morning. Why? Because it's on my training schedule.

But that's not my point so stop asking silly questions.

About 5 minutes into my ride I was stopped at the traffic light on the corner of Ocean Avenue and California. I know, that sounds like some sort of symbolism, as if I were to call it the corner of Paradise Boulevard and Heaven. But trust me, there really is an intersection at Ocean Avenue and California Street.

So anyway, I'm there straddled across my bike waiting for the light to turn green on this crisp new morning when all of the sudden I hear somebody yelling. I couldn't quite make out what was said, but it was just as well. You don't really want to hear random yelling in the middle of a street during the wee hours of the morning, regardless of what is uttered. Naturally, I checked out my surroundings to see if I was in danger.

As I glanced to my right I saw a gentleman, about 75 yards away, walking in my direction. He was about 45 years old and fairly rough around the edges. Bulky fellow. If he didn't play football in high school, he probably beat up football players in high school. Maybe even ate them for lunch.

He was wearing a gray sweatshirt that was fairly dirty. His shoes and pants were smeared in the same soiled ilk. It looked like this guy had just slept on the side of the road. In fact, it pretty much looked like the side of the road was where this chap lived on a regular basis.

I soon realized that he was the one yelling. At whom, I'm not sure. But yelling he was.
It didn't take me much longer to recognize what he was saying.


That's what he was yelling. And he looked fairly serious about it too, if I may add. Not exactly what you want to hear at 6:30 in the morning.

But, again, that's not my point.

Here's where my point starts. It starts with the actual words that this Crazy Homeless Guy was yelling. And, more importantly, his communication style.

I WILL KILL ANYBODY WHO TALKS TO ME! he screamed with full authority.

In fact, let's stop here for a second and do a test. I urge you to try yelling these words yourself. C'mon, give it a shot... I WILL KILL ANYBODY WHO TALKS TO ME!!

It feels a little odd, doesn't it? I mean, not so much the yelling part (which may feel odd if you're in the library or church or math class or just a quiet person overall. But, again, that's not my point.) What I mean is that it feels odd yelling that many words all at once.

Crazy Homeless Guy used far too many words to get his primary message across.

First of all, let's remember where I was - the corner of Ocean Avenue and California. As you can see, this is a fairly busy intersection in the morning hours. You've got cars zooming up and down Ocean and an equal number of cars headed every which way on California. On top of that, there are runners zipping along the running trail and bikers flying down the bike path.

There's a lot of rapid movement on the corner of Ocean Avenue and California. And just about everybody is moving far too quickly through this intersection for them to hear even a couple words from somebody down the road, much less a complete sentence.

Picture yourself driving at 30 miles as somebody yells I WILL KILL ANYBODY WHO TALKS TO ME. At best, if you get to the intersection early, you may hear "I Will Kill.." before zooming out of ear's reach. At that point, you really don't need to know anymore anyway. In fact, within a few seconds you'd already be at the next block formulating the story you'll tell over bagels and coffee at work.

If you get to the intersection a little later in the communication, on the other hand, you may just hear the end of his sentence: "...Talks To Me". If you're that certain type, upon hearing those words you may even pull your car to the side of the road to talk to the alleged, seemingly desperate and lonely person. As we now know, you'd be in for quite the fatal surprise.

So my first point here really goes to rule number one of public speaking: Know Thy Audience.

In this test, Crazy Homeless Guy failed miserably. His audience was moving at a very rapid rate with extremely limited time for conversation. Eight words are far too many to communicate effectively with the Ocean Avenue and California crowd. Unless, I suppose, you're sitting on a bike at a traffic light over-analyzing speech patterns. (But again, let's not divert the topic.)

Busy intersection aside, let me move on to my second point. To illustrate this, I will need to bring forward one of the basic rules of writing (for the sake of argument, we'll just extrapolate this one into the spoken word.) If you've ever bothered to read Strunk & White's Elements of Style, William Zinsser's On Writing Well, or any of those other books about writing (which I know you haven't, but I have, so just trust me on this one), you'll know that one of the basic rules of communication is to remove any and all unnecessary words.

Apparently one of the biggest pitfalls of new novelists is that they get a tad over-enthusiastic about creating all sorts of brilliantly exaggerated, stupendously ridiculous embellishments to try and create an overwhelming feeling, or vividly blinding image, or depressingly happy mood within the reader and what they end up with is an absurdly unprofessional and borderline illegible run-on-sentence that makes the reader want to commit hari-kari or, at the very least, stop reading and go to another blog with shorter posts.

In other words, many writers use too many words to get their point across. The great writers (me clearly not being one of them) manage to effectively create brilliant imagery and deliver complex messages with very few words.

If you're interested in knowing what this writing mastery looks like, hop on your bike and pedal your triathlon-ass down to the library and browse through a couple pockets of brilliance like Nabokov's Lolita, Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground or Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Hell, why don't you even pick up Stephen King's It for good measure (yeah, I throw Stephen King in with that illustrious group. Love him or hate him, you've gotta admit the guy is the master of manipulating words to scare the living crap out of you. Nobody does what he does as well as he does.)

So back to our Crazy Homeless Guy and his emphatic eight word threat. Clearly he did not adhere to these basic laws of effective communication. For Godsakes, it doesn't even feel normal to me to scream all those words. And, arguably, I'm not crazy or homeless. Screaming those words is about as unnatural as the swimming form of my YMCA friend, The Kicker.


Eight words. Surely there are ways to get the message across more succinctly.

The truth is, there are many ways that Crazy Homeless Guy could've gotten his point across in a much more effective, natural sounding manner. All he'd have to do is remember the movie classic Stripes. And I guarantee you, just from the looks of this fellow, that he's already seen the movie.

Remember Frances in Stripes? He was the recruit with the bad attitude. Yet underneath the anger, Frances was a tremendous communicator who got his point across very quickly:

Touch me, I'll kill you.
Look at me, I'll kill you.

Look at how simple that is. Five words. And Frances didn't even have to yell. To the contrary, his word usage was so concise, so precise, that it needed no extra embellishment.

Touch me, I'll kill you.



I ask you, which is more effective.

But don't let me stop there, cause I've got even better examples and we all know this post isn't long enough already.

Perhaps the best example of the superior communication that may have helped Crazy Homeless Guy comes from the master of simplicity, the king of concise, the great, legendary orator, Frankenstein and his immortal words:

Fire, bad.

Really now, how much more succinct can you get. Two words and you've pretty much got the point across.

When I was in Italy a few years ago, a homeless man came up to me and asked for money. When he realized I was American, he started asking me about our President and my feelings towards his political agenda. I was stunned. The homeless man started talking in great detail about the political maneuvers, strategic alliances and discreet agendas that our government was practicing. He discussed intricacies of concepts I knew very little about, despite the fact that I had seen their headlines in the paper for days.

In Europe, the homeless are sophisticated in their conversations.

In the US, we scream things like I WILL KILL ANYBODY WHO TALKS TO ME, when everybody knows that a simple "Talking, bad" will do.


No Wetsuit Girl... overseas! said...

I was with you until the Stephen King thing... It's interesting the things that you get to experience on a bicycle instead of an enclosed, fast-mooving car with a built-in sound system. I used to keep a tally of all the wildlife I saw... lying like a pancake in the gutter: deer, squirrels, cats, mice, and even a baby mountain lion and a mallard duck. Anyway, can you really blame the guy? If I could talk at 6:30 in the morning (which I usually can't, not in syllables anyway) I would probably say, "I will kill anyone who talks to me" too. Or at least "I'll kill..." to cut my words down to 7.

JohnnyTri said...

Im glad the most I get from others out that early in the morning is a moooooooo... cows is about it where I ride in the country..

great links for the google maps, had me playing that for about 20 mins before I came back to finish your blog.. :)

rockon` and stay safe..

Anonymous said...

Wow! It's like a really bad car wreck; I want to stop reading, but I can't!

Andra Sue said...

Ah, Santa I've missed you! Can't wait for my next trip in mid-April. Maybe I'll see your crazy yelling homeless guy. Or crazy can't stop espousing my policical beliefs at Wild Oats customer guy. Or crazy bus-window sunglasses and mukluk boots with short-shorts girl. Or crazy stinky one-dreadlock guy. The anticipation rises...

Diane said...

I just discovered your blog and love it - particularly enjoyed the irony of your last two posts - The Filling of a Blank Mind followed by this one. Hilarious!

j. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Di. (Oh look, I can still rhyme. I'm a poet.)