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The Important Difference Between Speaking and Communicating

The Important Difference Between Speaking and Communicating
Photo Source: Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

We speak to communicate but in many cases, all we do is further confuse things. I sometimes wonder if dolphins and parrots hear one another click and squawk and think, “what the heck is his problem?” or if it’s only humans that unconsciously obscure their dialogue with hidden meaning. 

Drama thrives on miscommunication but in general life, it is a major problem for humans. Does the animal kingdom have subtext? When you see animals hunt, play and procreate, it’s difficult to believe that underneath their interaction lurks jealousy, resentment, and contempt. Despite the desire of documentarians to personify their subjects in order to make their struggles more relatable to humans, the only real drama between lions, sharks and insects seems to be which one of them will ultimately get the shelter, the food or the mate. They both want the same thing—to survive—and they do what they can to get it. The strongest, shrewdest or most cunning wins out in the end and the other falls into line, suffers a crushing defeat leading to exile, or is killed in the process. It’s a pretty simple equation, really.

For most humans though, not so much.   

When it comes to an actor’s dialogue, the words themselves are far less important than the message being communicated by the character. To take most people (or characters) entirely at their word would be a mistake. This is not cynicism, it’s pragmatism. When you ask me how I am and I say, “fine, thanks,” there is almost no chance at all that this is the whole story, even if my life actually is a generally pleasant one. I may be much better than I’m letting on or much worse, but the likelihood is that what I’m telling you is only a sliver of what’s really going on for me in that moment.

When it comes to dramatic writing, there is almost no room for flawless communication, even though it’s the thing we are constantly seeking. If our communication were always perfect, then films or TV shows would be incredibly uninteresting. And short. That’s why Alfred Hitchcock called drama “life, but with the dull bits cut out.”

READ: Why ‘Interpreting’ Scripts Is a Dangerous Idea, Pt. I

Look at any single line in a scene you’re currently working on in class or a project. In fact, pick the toughest line in the script, the one that is the most difficult to understand or deliver. Now imagine that this line is the very tip of an iceberg and that what you are actually attempting to communicate is what lies under the surface of the water. The true message is much deeper, broader and more loaded than the line itself. Now write a new line that says exactly what you’re trying to communicate to the other person. This is the (much larger) part of the iceberg that is obscured beneath the surface. The original line is what you’re speaking out loud, but this new line is what you’re really communicating in your body and mind. 

Say the new line out loud repeatedly until you know how it feels in your body. Say it, mean it, communicate it fully. Now say what’s on the page out loud whilst thinking the new line in your head alone. Do you see now that the superficial line is really only a thin veil over what you would say if society wasn’t constantly telling you to be polite, wait your turn, and not to make a fuss?

You may be saying, “yes, but you’re just talking about subtext,” and you’re right. The problem with what we’ve been taught about subtext, though, is that it often promotes we create something we either want to say to the person in the scene, or a particular mood or state to feel, and then underscore every single moment with it. This isn’t actually as lifelike as finding the peaks of these icebergs and exploring what may lie beneath each one. There may be many multiple icebergs peaks in each scene, and using specific lines prevents you from washing a whole scene with something you’ve invented that has very little relevance to each line.

So from now on in acting and life, listen to what people are actually communicating and not just their words. When you surrender to the practice you will not only become a more compelling performer, but you may just find the problems and desires of others have been clear all along. It wasn’t as much in their words, as it was underneath them.

Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs regular on-camera classes in Los Angeles and online around the world. For more information, check out Barry’s full bio!

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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