Just Enough: 3 Speaking Games
by Catherine Thomson
We live in a world of "elevator pitches", where, regardless of whether you are physically going up or down, your fortunes rise or fall on your ability to deliver your core message with blinding clarity in 60 seconds or less. To rule in the realm of effective communication you must be a master of brevity.
I can still recall the frustration I felt at my first Toy Fair, when a buyer strode into my booth and declared, "You have sixty seconds." How could I distill all the deliciousness of my then only game into one quick shot? It is fair to say that, ill-prepared as I was for delivering this bite-size serving, I didn't close the sale. In fact, it was several years before I came to respect, rather than resent, the efficient buyer and to learn to tailor my communication in increments of 30 seconds, building on the awareness that if she liked the first 30 second taster enough to stay for a second helping, she just might go for the whole meal. If I couldn't grab a determined buyer in 30 seconds, how could she possibly hope to hook a shopper distracted by a cell phone, a screaming baby and a burgeoning credit card balance? Moreover, what in my message would eventually make its way through my time-pressed buyer and her distracted shopper to his friends and family and beyond?
So what does this have to do with Games for Educators? Well, everything. Effective communication is among the most, if not the most, important concepts we learn as human beings. And, since we learn best through fun activities, why not make learning the art of brevity a deliberate act of play?
Here are three activities that will help to winnow out the windbags and set them on a path to successful succinctness.
Just a Minute! is a speaking game that has been broadcast for years on BBC Radio 4. To quote from the program's website, it is a "game in which the contestants are challenged to speak for one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition on any subject that comes up." We used to play it with much hilarity with our daughter (now, herself, a broadcaster). In our ‘'home'' version, players select a number of topics (the weather, an upcoming election, favorite toy, prettiest item of clothing – whatever is age and subject appropriate for your class or gathering). The topics are written on slips of paper, with one drawn for each round. Someone sets a timer or begins to watch the clock for a minute (with younger players you may wish to begin with 30 seconds and work up). The Speaker then begins to speak on the topic of that round. The Speaker's turn ends for that round if he/she pauses or says ‘'uh'' or ‘mmm', etc., if he strays from the topic (for instance, moving from a discussion of a favorite toy to a favorite film), or if a key term (noun, verb, adjective or adverb) used earlier in the round by the current or a former speaker is repeated. When a Speaker's turn ends in a round, play immediately continues with the next Speaker. The Speaker speaking when the minute is exhausted is the winner of a point in that round. Play as many rounds as you wish.
It is surprisingly difficult to speak extemporaneously without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Although it is excellent in itself for players to learn this art, it is also a helpful reminder that the most important presentations one makes should not be off-the-cuff, but, instead, should be carefully planned and rehearsed.
If you find that players regularly repeat certain terms in their discussion, it is useful to review those words against a thesaurus, suggesting possible substitutes to broaden vocabulary and enliven the description.
Just the Facts Ma'am! is an activity I named for a famous line from the Dragnet TV program and designed to help players focus on the objective and obvious, while eschewing the subjective and small stuff. To play, in Round One everyone looks at an image for 30 seconds. After concealing the image, players take 30 seconds to write a list of as many things (ie, nouns) as they can remember about what was in the image. Players then compare their lists, scoring points only for those items listed by other players, with the most popular items listed delivering the highest points. For example, if 4 of 6 players note a chair, they each score 4 points. No points are awarded for items listed by only one player.
In the more advanced Round Two, a Master List is created beginning with the items listed by the most players in Round One and continuing through until all items listed by two or more players have been included. With the image still obscured from view, players, working on their own, are given 3 minutes to write a description of the image beginning with the first item on the Master List and continuing until time has elapsed. Each player passes their description to the player to their left. The image is revealed again and the descriptions are read aloud one at a time. The group evaluates each description, deducting points from the writer's Round One score for each inaccuracy and for any non-objective aspect of the description (for instance, just because the woman is holding a basket with a bow on it doesn't mean it's a gift for or to her). After all, it's just the facts ma'am.
Just Like That! is a variation on Just the Facts Ma'am! that builds from the basic ingredients essential to communicating an idea to the full picture. Players divide into two or more teams. Each team is given a different image and, in 60 seconds, creates a list of words to use in describing the image, starting with the items in the image they think are most important to that image. The list of words can include nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, but each word can only be listed individually. For instance, brown sweater would be listed as 1. brown and 2. sweater. The teams then conceal their images and pass their list of words to the team to their right. Each team then has 5 minutes to use the list to write a summary of what they think the picture might look like. Teams take it in turns to turn to show their image, while the team that wrote what they think it might look like reads their description. Although the results can be uproarious, the closer the description comes to reflecting the actual picture, the better the team creating the list of words did in identifying key elements.
These exercises don't teach players how to finesse a funny bone or alliterate alluringly. However, they do highlight key concepts in delivery and focus that ultimately enable players to deliver effective messages.
I was recently reminded of the importance of these kinds of activities when I was invited to act as a mentor to groups of students participating in a local library's Game Inventor Fair in preparation for the larger Chicago Toy and Game Fair Young Inventor Challenge later this month. While all the participants could be proud of the progress they made as their projects advanced from idea to prototype, those who were able to articulate their vision in concrete terms were best placed to continue through the stages of idea refinement and execution, ending ultimately with a product that matched their vision and a pitch that matched their product.
Just right and just in time!