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  • Writer's pictureDamian Robb

Stray Thoughts 03 | Trying to Communicate


There are many things we comfortably take for granted. Things that have eased into our collective experience so that we don’t even question them anymore, or only do when something goes wrong. Yes, I’m talking about the technology that exists in this the information age but I’m also talking more broadly about what that technology allows, and how its existence when looked at from afar is truly a marvel.

The greatest of these might be our ability to so easily communicate with one another. 

Be it by phone or text or email or messenger or whatsapp or signal or zoom or instagram or any of the other countless ways one person can reach out, tap another on the shoulder, and whisper them a message. Including here, right now, with me talking to you. It happens so effortlessly and with such frequency that I think often we forget we’re even communicating with another person.

This morning, I went for a run. The day was slowly beginning to lighten, causing the clouds to look like pink fairy floss. I am not not a morning person. I start my day at six am without too much trouble and usually like to start the day by almost immediately doing something. The dishes from the night before, yoga, a walk, read something, whatever, as I’ve somehow acquired this mentality that if I just start doing something then I can wake up properly while I’m doing it. Mostly, that’s true. But the one thing I’m not all that good at in the morning is communication. I can be monosyllabic, slow in reply, and if someone, namely my wife, happens to have had a good sleep and is feeling a bit chatty, she’s going to get a caveman as her conversational partner, more likely to respond in grunts and yeahs all while watching her talk with an expression of wide eyed vacancy.

So, back to this run. Running mostly doesn’t require communication. It just requires me to lug my body forward one tiny jump at a time. I can largely switch off the ol’ thinking jelly that sits in my head and instead mostly just exist for a while, with my neurons barely firing beyond keeping the mechanical motion going. What’s more, by doing it in the morning when the sun is also finding it hard to get all the way up, I’m often alone, only a few other souls out and about, wandering the walking/bike path, most as zombified as I am. 

Most, but not all. There are some that have met the day with all their faculties very much in place, and who seem to hit that concrete in search of a kindred spirit to give a cheery greeting too. I ran past one such of these today, them walking me running. They were a balding man with glasses maybe somewhere in their fifties. Did they have spandex on? Yes they did. Did they give a wave and a jaunty ‘Morning!’ as we crossed paths? You better believe it. Did I nearly choke on my own tongue as my thinking jelly, suddenly unexpectedly called upon to come up with any kind of response, failed to produce the words ‘good’ and ‘morning’ and instead made a noise that only somewhat sounded like the words in question? Yeah, that’s exactly what happened.

Communication isn’t always easy. There are countless stories, books, movies, tv shows, and plays, where if one person could have just cleanly and efficiently communicated with another then all their problems could have been solved. It’s an experience we can all relate to. Wanting to communicate and failing to, either because we don’t have the words or the courage or the capacity. It’s a frustrating feeling.

This year, my job is to write. It’s a job Holly and I have purchased for me and one I’m unsurprised to realise I’m already loving. It’s also an exercise in communication. Everyday that’s really all I’m trying to do, reach out and attempt to communicate across time and space with people unknown. I want them to see what I see. View it all from the angle I’m viewing it. Experience the story I’m playing out in my head as close as possible to the way it’s playing out in my head. And I’m learning there are so many elements that need to be communicated. Take for example, just dialogue. There’s not just what the characters say – easy enough to do, just write their words down – but also how they say it, the meaning behind those words, the potential layers of subtext, and then the overarching feeling or want sitting behind all that. This can be done by setting up motivations, giving physical or verbal cues, detailing what the response and reactions of what they’re saying has on those around them, and detail if any difference to the situation has changed because of their words. The character needs to communicate their desires, or not, and I need to communicate all the rest, ideally, as cleanly and coherently as possible.

Then you add in the setting, the character descriptions, the smells and sounds happening around them, the internal landscapes of each of our main players, and many other things, and it quickly becomes layers and layers of communication, all hopefully achieved by me punching away at a keyboard.

And here’s something else, I don’t believe words are the best medium for communication.

Far from.

In the last couple of months, I’ve been doing renovations on our house. Because of the whole, not-working-in-order-to-be-a-writer thing, our budget is fairly fixed and so I ended up doing as much of the renovations myself as I could. I’m okay when it comes to handyman stuff but it’s a massive ocean of knowledge and at best I have dipped a foot in. So, when it came to submerging more of myself and learning some new skills in order to pull off the specific renovations we had planned, I turned to Youtube.

Youtube may be the greatest repository of communication we have collectively achieved. Is it all good communication? Hell no. But let’s stick to the positives right now, because it is truly exceptional that we can type in some random prompt and have a relatively good chance of some stranger somewhere in the world at some point in time having posted a video to meet that prompt. And not even just one but a whole score of them.

And what’s interesting here is that I didn’t borrow a book or look up an article on what I needed to know, I went for a video. If a picture speaks a thousand words then how many must a video speak? When it comes to communication, as far as I’m concerned, video is king.

In 1967 a researcher by the name of Albert Mehrabian conducted a number of studies and came up with the 55/38/7 formula. Mehrabian was a researcher of body language, interested in breaking down the components of a face-to-face conversation. He found that communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and 7% words only. While these percentages can’t apply to every situation they do give a good indication of just how ineffective words alone can be. 

For another example, Holly told me recently of a podcast she had listened to. It was a travel podcast where two friends discussed various destinations they’d travelled to, giving advice on where to go, what to eat, transport options, budgets, all those kinds of things. She found it because she’d been having trouble finding information for a specific location on her usual array of travel blogs and forums she would turn to for this kind of thing. She said listening to it, she got some great advice delivered organically and easily by two friends just having a chat and detailing their own time there. It made me realise that if you were to ask someone to tell you about their holiday they likely happily would, but if you were to ask them to write down in detail their experience, ensuring they provide all the same information, well, you might get some resistance there as the effort and thought involved is far greater. Similarly, for my renovations, if I had asked one of these handymen or women to write a manual on how to change a lock or replace some flywire, chances are they wouldn’t, and even if they did, I doubt it would be as effective as them showing me through video.

Which brings us back to the marvels of communication we currently enjoy. Because again it’s amazing just how plentiful and accessible those other forms of communication are. We can so easily listen to a podcast, or watch a video, or reach out and ask a specific person a specific question and get a response, and do it all in rapid time. Hell, I just sent Holly a message asking her to give me a link to the podcast in question to include in the show notes, and I did it quickly and easily and without even really thinking about it. She responded just as quickly. A simple bit of communication completed as efficiently as if she were sitting next to me instead of from her office.

A side note here, but when it comes to story communication, one of the greatest examples I’ve seen recently is both of the Dune movies. Now granted, Denis Villineue has the advantage of video here, but they are a masterclass in communicating information. I’ve read the original Frank Herbert novel, and while the material is terrific, I found the book dense and challenging and a slight slog to get through. Not true of the movies. Despite the massive world and characters and fractions and ecology and rules and moving pieces at play, they’re all communicated in a seemingly effortless display of craft and skill. Sound and visuals are weaponised to not only be stunningly visceral but also stunningly effective at delivering all the above information. Yes, there are moments where you can see the exposition, but I think they only highlight that we are in reality constantly getting exposition and it’s only those rare moments when we’re actually aware of it. When it comes to communication, those movies are an incredible feat.

So, back to my main point, which is that we live in a time when communicating is almost a super power. It is happening consistently in a multitude of ways, with participants not needing to be in the same room, or the same city, or the same country, or even the same period of time. And it can be easy to forget that. Even just today, how much have you communicated or had communicated at you? How many people have you digitally interacted with in one form or another? When a simple scroll through social media is allowing you to communicate with hundreds of people.

So, given that, I think the question then becomes, when we can so easily communicate, what is it that we want to say?

While modern communication through all the many hydra-like arms of the internet can be toxic and broken, full of unnecessary discourse and hate, it can also be kind of miraculous. Let’s go back to Youtube for a second and the people I found there, because it was these beautiful strangers who helped me renovate my house. A dozen unknown mentors who through shaky video and questionable audio took me by the hand and taught me some new skills.

That, to me, is a modern day marvel we regularly take for granted, where communication and teaching took place without us ever having met.

And so is this.

Thank you so much for reading these Stray Thoughts and until next time, use any of the number of ways we have to communicate to maybe reach out to a stranger and give them a compliment, and if you’re going for a run, be ready with some words in case someone does the same to you.


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