round in circles

simple spirograph bar pattern in black on white

If you ask for advice about writing a presentation, one recommendation is likely to come up time and again:

Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
Tell them.
Tell them what you’ve told them.

This three-part cyclical format is far more likely to get your message through to your audience than a simple linear thread.

I’ve long been an advocate of the idea of poetry as “the art of patterning”, but the more I think about it, the more I see that patterns play a part in effective communication in general, not just poetry.

simple spirograph daisy pattern in pink on white

Effective speaking and writing often involves establishing patterns – of sense, metre, sound etc. – only to break them; we repeat sounds and phrases; we repeat ideas and concepts using different words; we repeat structures to help our audience (reader or listener) follow along.

We use known phrases, concepts and structures to facilitate understanding by reducing the number of new elements that need to be processed at once; we add variations to these familiar components to capture the attention of our audience.

We circle back on our train of thought, adding in layers of information to make it more complete.

spirograph double daisy pattern in pink on white

There’s far more to it than that, of course, but, simply put, repetition and variation are basic communication tools.

Which is all very well, but I seem to have gone off at a tangent before I’ve even begun, as my original idea was to talk about the geometry of conversation.

This idea started after I recently spent a very pleasant morning over a long breakfast with friends: the conversation flowed on and on with few breaks but many tangents, leaps of logic and tenuous links.

I was reminded of a friend from over thirty years ago, back when when I was first involved with computers and was excited by such novel concepts as cache memory and last-in, first-out stacks. We likened this woman’s conversations to a stack machine: she’d start off talking about one topic then put another topic on the stack, then another, then another, building the stack higher and higher; then, finishing the top topic, she’d work down through a few layers then add another, then back down, and so on, adding topics and exhausting them in last-in/first -out order, until she finally reached the first topic again. It was fascinating to listen to her as she seemed to have perfect recall of how she had reached any point in the conversation and could always get back down the stack.

But most conversations aren’t like that.

There are conversations that are simply linear and functional, but uninspired. In others, the tangents are like the bifurcating universe: each decision to follow one topic rather than another leads you farther and farther away from the original.

Sometimes, it’s like the pattern at the start of this post, where you keep looping back towards a central theme, but then veer away from it, never actually mentioning or dealing with it, but defining it by the very gap that you create by avoiding it.

And then there are times like that recent Sunday morning when the conversation seems to be perfectly choreographed, with each speaker taking turns in the weaving of a fabric where the threads loop and cross, spin on pivot points, spiral and repeat in some unseen but gloriously exultant pattern.

spirograph daisy pattern in pink on white

If I were a textile artist working with fabrics and threads, I could probably have spun and woven a great room-sized 3D illustration of our conversation; certainly weights, colours and textures would all have played a part.

Not having access to such a machine, the patterns here were drawn using Nathan Friend’s inspirograph.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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