Talk Book Summary - Talk Book explained in key points
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Talk summary

Elizabeth Stokoe

The Science of Conversation

4.1 (227 ratings)
25 mins

What is Talk about?

From small talk with the barista to water-cooler chat with colleagues, we spend a lot of our time talking yet very few of us understand the science that underpins how we talk. Talk (2018) breaks down the fundamental building blocks and typical patterns of conversational encounters to reveal the structures and strategies behind what we say, and offers a blueprint for how we can learn to talk and listen more effectively.

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    Breaking conversation into building blocks reveals that most interactions follow predictable patterns.

    You probably first learned to “take turns” in playtime at school, but taking turns is equally crucial for successful conversation.

    When you’re in conversation, you and your partner are engaged in completing a conversational project. It might be a project as simple as ordering a pizza or as challenging as asking for a promotion. Whatever it is, you and your partner collaborate in completing this project through a series of conversational turns.

    A conversational turn is a grammatically coherent unit of talk. Additional non-verbal cues, like trailing off or employing downward intonation, signal the turn is complete. As we listen, we’re analyzing when the speaker’s turn will finish, and when our turn should be next.

    Turns are organized in adjacency pairs. The first turn in a pair is designed to prompt an appropriate second turn. A greeting is designed to prompt a greeting, a question is designed to prompt an answer, and so on.

    Basically, conversation consists of turn-taking. One person talks, the other person listens and waits to talk. So far, so obvious! But a more detailed look at turn-taking reveals that it’s the source of some common conversational problems. 

    The end of a turn presents a potential conversational minefield. Misread the cues and you might end up interrupting someone before they’ve finished what they want to say, creating the impression that you’re not listening. 

    What’s more, the endings of some turns are artificial – that is, they’re only designed to produce short responses. If someone completes a turn in the middle of a long story, they’re inviting you to interject with something along the lines of “Really?” They’re not inviting you to interrupt with a lengthy anecdote of your own. 

    Meanwhile, if you talk out of turn, you’re a first mover. This means that you fail to complete adjacency pairs properly – and you might be creating a poor conversational impression because of it. 

    If your neighbor responds to your greeting of “Good morning!” with a demand, such as, “You need to do something about your dog barking,” then she’s a first mover. Her demand may be reasonable, but without following the convention of responding to a greeting with a greeting before moving the conversation along, it comes off as rude and unreasonable.

    Taking turns is harder than it first seems, but once you’ve mastered the art, you’re well on your way to smoother conversations.

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    About the Author

    Elizabeth Stokoe is professor of social interaction at Loughborough University, where she specializes in conversation analysis. She developed the CARM (Conversational Analytic Role-Play) method, which uses recordings of real-time conversations to identify typical problems and patterns in conversation. As a conversation analyst, she has consulted on conversational strategy in fields ranging from hostage negotiation to speed dating.

    Who should read Talk?

    • Anyone who’s ever had trouble getting a point across
    • Anyone who’s ever suffered a communication breakdown
    • People who want to take their conversational skills up a notch

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