Freckles grow at dawn: What the game of Telephone taught me about communication

One June afternoon in the sixth grade, the teacher decided to play Telephone. For those not in the know, Telephone is a game where one person (the teacher in this case) thinks of an initial sentence, and the sentence is passed from person to person until the last person says it out loud. Often times the resulting sentence will be quite different from the initial one. Almost twenty years later, here are three things Telephone taught me about communication.

#1: Not Everyone Will Hear the Same Message

What I loved about Telephone was the debrief: I found it fascinating to go from person to person and analyze how the sentence evolved. One time the teacher came up with the sentence “roosters crow at dawn.” When it was my turn, all I heard was “freckles grow at dawn.” The sentence eventually morphed into “freckles grow in the dark.”

In the analysis, there were three main groups of people, 1) those that heard roosters crow at dawn, 2) freckles grow at dawn, and 3) freckles grow in the dark. You could argue it was only three people (in a group of 30+) that heard incorrectly. But those changes reinforced an important speaking point for me: an audience is comprised of people from many different backgrounds, cultures, religious beliefs, and viewpoints. Don’t assume everyone will hear your words in the exact same way.

#2: Don’t Assume They’ll Ask

In another game of Telephone, the original sentence was “Donald Duck and Daisy are getting married.” That was the message I heard and passed along. However when the analysis came around, the girl beside me said “I heard Donald Duck and Baby are getting married.” I was offended for the next five to ten minutes. How could she have heard it wrong? She could have asked for me to say the sentence again, but why didn’t she ask me for clarification when clearly the sentence wasn’t understood correctly?

Only recently do I feel like I understand. My classmate had heard the message loud and clear, or believed she did. Because she felt like there was no confusion, there was no need to clarify, or ask me to repeat anything. It wasn’t her, it was me. I had probably not made the effort to enunciate my words, and probably had not paid attention to my vocal volume when I was passing along the message.

Nowadays when I write and practice a speech, I find myself asking if the audience will understand. Is my speech clear enough and easy to follow? Are there any areas where the audience can misunderstand? Is it an easy one or two word fix, or would I have to insert more detail to ensure (as much as possible) we will all go down the same path together?

#3: Appreciate the Humour

Despite the best intentions and the best planning, you can never quite predict when someone will mishear the message. As one of the most memorable rounds of Telephone goes, a sentence stating “the baseball player slid into home base” can somehow turn into “the chicken balls bit me on the window sill.”

You can’t make that stuff up.

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