How And Why Do People Use The Words They Use?


Friday, 5.52am

Sheffield, U.K.

A few observation and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning to truth. – Alexis Carrel

In my previous post I looked at the physical elements of note taking – especially the difference between linear notes in a notebook with pages held together and notes on loose sheets of paper that could be filed later – and briefly looked at how writing words and drawing pictures might be more useful than either on its own.

But regardless of method, what is it we’re trying to do when we’re listening to someone and taking notes?

There are two things I’ve come across as I look into this – the idea of memory as storage and the idea of memory as reconstruction.

Let’s look at these in a little more detail.

Memory as storage

A storage model of memory sees the brain like it’s a hard disk, a place where stuff is stored and later retrieved.

The way it’s stored is different, you have neurons and chemistry rather than magnets and circuits – but in essence you put stuff into memory and then access it later.

The kinds of things you put into this memory include facts, experiences and concepts.

In particular, it contains your word bank – all the words you know and can draw on when you talk to someone else.

The only thing with this model is that it leads you to believe that what goes in is what comes out – but is that really the case?

Memory as reconstruction

Another model of memory is one that sees what you remember and being modified and changed over time.

In the book, “Stumbling on happiness”, Daniel Gilbert talks about how there are many things we wouldn’t do again if we truly remembered them as they were.

Childbirth, for example, is hugely painful – but after a while what women remember is the joy of having their child – to the point where they consider going through the pain again.

People who go through a traumatic incident – losing a limb or bodily functions are no less happy than others after a period of time – their brain rewires itself to cope with the situation.

Now, this is something you can check for yourself.

How often do stories change over time – when incidents or events are told and retold and in the telling change their form?

Do you remember something more kindly over time or have you fanned the flames of indignation and still burn with anger over a perceived slight from years ago?

Talking it through means thinking it through

Now, given those two approaches to memory: storage and retrieval, and construction and reconstruction, what happens when we listen to someone?

The interesting thing there is as humans it seems that we need to talk it through to make sense of it at all.

If we aren’t allowed to speak we can’t actually think.

Now, many of us are probably guilty of this, especially with the people closest to us.

Do we give them time to talk or do we cut them off, jumping in with our own ideas?

The irony is that if you really want to get someone to understand something you probably need to lean back and ask questions that will help them discover it for themselves rather than telling them about it.

Asking and answering questions is the way we work out what we think about something.

For example, many business pitches and presentations are structured around “telling” – here’s everything about us in order.

A different approach to presenting, set out by Andrew Abela in his book on the extreme presentation method is about doing your presentation by asking the questions your audience has in their mind and then answering them as you go along.

You know it’s worked when your audience doesn’t keep questioning you when you stop but start discussing what you’ve said among themselves.

They start to put it in their own words.

That’s important – when they restate things, say it in their own words – that’s when they’re really starting to understand the ideas, when they begin to “get” it.

And you’re on your way to a sale.

Letting people talk is crucial – right now as you read these words, you aren’t reading polished, finished prose – my thoughts aren’t complete, coherent and structured.

Far from it.

I use writing as a way to think through these ideas for myself – I try and write in the way I would speak to someone and my choice of words and the way they come out is helping me understand this topic as I write.

I suppose in many cases this stuff is done in private and people don’t show you how they came to an idea – they just show you the finished product.

But if you want to work with someone else you have to recognise that they probably need some time to work through what they’re thinking and if you can help them do that you’re probably going to be selected to work with them later.

Questions are important

Clearly, what makes the difference is not what you say but how you ask questions and how they are answered.

Let’s look at that in more detail in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

p.s. The image above is shorthand, Teeline for the following

This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. – Matthew 13:13

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: