There’s one simple thing great communicators do…prompt talking.
There’s one thing I’ve noticed that great communicators do. It keeps your eyes moving on the page, or it makes a circle form around them at a party.
It’s something I’ve observed, but that I’ve never heard talked about. I don’t know where these people learn it. I’ve learned it by watching.
I’m not yet sure what to call it. I call it “prompt talking.” You could also call it “onion talking,” but that conjures up images of halitosis. Maybe it already has a name, and I haven’t heard it.
When you prompt talk, you do something that few people intuitively do: You slowly reveal information. You “prompt” the listener to keep listening. Each statement you make gives out information, but at the same time leaves the listener begging for more information.
If someone catches their cat stealing cookies from the cookie jar, they’re likely to tell the story like this:
“I caught Max stealing cookies from the cookie jar today. It was so funny, blah, blah…”
You stop listening to this person immediately. It’s like getting a “spoiler” right before watching a thriller.
What they’re doing reveals the narcissism with which we all struggle. They’re living the story in their own head. They’re feeling their own reaction. They think that by telling you the event that finally gave them that reaction, you’ll feel the same way. They forget about all of the details leading up to the event, which gave that event significance.
A prompt talker does it differently. They tell the story like this:
“I came home yesterday. I was exhausted. I didn’t have the energy for what was about to happen. It was strangely quiet. I thought, ‘Oh, no, I must have left the back door open. Oh, no, Max ran away!…’”
It’s full of “prompts.” Each piece of information that is revealed leaves more information yet to be uncovered. What “was about to happen?” Why was it so quiet? Oh my god, is your cat missing!?
It’s important to make a distinction here. Prompt talking is a complement to other devices at work in this story. It’s impossible to extract these devices, because they’re so central to good storytelling.
The teller is revealing their own emotional state: “exhausted.” They’re subtly raising the stakes with this information. They’re also misdirecting you with their own worries about Max running away.
All of these serve to build up to a more interesting reveal—that Max was raiding the cookie jar. These devices are hard to separate from the device of prompt talking. They’re all intertwined.
Prompt talking is not necessarily adding emotional state, nor is it necessarily misdirection. It is simply revealing information, one bit at a time. This is why I’m also tempted to call it “onion talking.” You’re peeling off each layer of the onion.
It helps if, as you’re revealing one piece of information at a time, you’re also revealing the most question-provoking information each time.
Once you’re aware of prompt talking, you see it everywhere. Seth Godin is a master prompt talker. Here’s just one statement from when I interviewed Seth on my podcast. (I cited this quote in my recent self-publishing article.)
“If you’re publishing yourself, you have the most committed publisher in the world…. You’re still going to be the head of marketing for your book. So how do you learn that? Well, you learn it by doing. And the easiest way to do it…is to come out with a book a week on the Kindle…. It costs nothing to do this. It costs less than it cost me to mail my proposals to book publishers. So what are you waiting for!?” — Seth Godin
I was going to bold all of Seth’s prompts in this statement, but the entire statement is prompts. Some of it is withholding information, some of it is making bold statements that bring about questions, and some of it is presenting big ideas one piece at a time, so they can be digested.
“the most committed publisher in the world”? Really? Tell me more!
“how do you learn that?” (A very deliberately-posed prompt.)
“a book a week on the Kindle”? That’s nuts! I need a moment to process this.
Imagine if he instead said, “even if you have a traditional publisher, you have to market your book anyway, so you should publish lots of books because it’s free.”
Way less impact. There are too many big ideas at once. It just goes speeding by, like the last train of the night.
People hate to admit that they like prompt talking. They don’t need their information “dumbed down.” They may look at my bizarro-Seth-Godin statement above, and claim that they would prefer it. They’re plenty smart, and can understand compound sentences just fine, thank you.
Or consider one of the many criticisms of Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. People loved to share articles criticizing him for speaking at a fourth-grade level. Part of that is due to his prompt talking. Anyone who is successful in politics has mastered prompt talking. Just watch.
Maybe some people really prefer compound sentences, with many ideas at once, but it’s very few people. If you don’t prompt talk, the world punishes you. They don’t read your articles, they don’t share your book, and they look for someone else at the party to talk to. There are too many other articles and books to command their attention. They have a smartphone in their pocket—which is a portal to more interesting people.
Some may say that prompt talking is annoying. It feels repetitive. You feel manipulated when you’re being strung along. “Just give me the damn information!”
It’s true, when you lay on prompt talking too thickly, it sounds contrived. When you’re aware of prompt talking, it’s even more likely to sound contrived.
I can think of a couple of authors to whom I can’t stand to listen, all because they are such heavy prompt talkers. You know what, though? They also sell a ton of books.
If you prompt talk everything, something might happen. It might annoy a few people. It also might make your communication more successful with many more people. How do you know how much prompt talking to do? You try it. You try it as much as you can.
I bet there’s a balance in how much prompt talking you can do. If most of what you say is prompt talking, people will understand you. Your message will get across more easily. But—every once in awhile—for dramatic effect, and for the sake of tying together all of your prior concepts, throw in a nice compound sentence, with some en dashes or semicolons; your listener won’t feel so patronized, nor manipulated.
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