Most of us have been admonished from an early age to “think before you speak.” But it turns out that speaking doesn’t work that way. Studies in psycholinguistics (Smith and Wheeldon 1999, for example) suggest that humans routinely dive into spoken sentences without a plan for how they will end. We do some basic preprocessing of the opening phrase, and perhaps some sketching around how it might end. But otherwise we’re constructing the sentence as we say it. Just notice yourself speaking at some moment today, and see what you do.
Normally, a blog post would get normative after that statement: saying you should think a whole sentence through before you say it. But that’s not how our brains work. And if they did, we’d never actually speak to each other in productive ways.
Spoken communication is constructed entirely in context and in response to a thousand variables — implicit and explicit. Leaping into a sentence before it’s fully constructed is a necessary fact of life. And when you think of it, it’s also an extraordinary act of faith — that the rest of the sentence will be waiting for you when you get to it, that you have a strong enough working knowledge of vocabulary and grammar and syntax to make it through mostly unscathed, that the person you’re speaking to will be a collaborative partner in unpacking whatever you construct.
By this metric, each of us is making a few hundred small leaps of faith each day.
This disconnect between what we’re supposed to do before speaking, and what we actually do, strikes me as relevant to the many ways we talk about strategy and planning. We’re supposed to draft a thorough plan before taking action in our individual work, or the collective work of our organization. We’re supposed to think through all contingencies, and plan for them.
But what we actually do, at our best, is think through the opening phrase, and the possible closing phrase, and dive in. So many of the managers I meet in arts organizations recognize this in their work, and feel bad about it. They should have a better plan for their day, their week, their month, their year. But they’re mostly acting in faith in response to the moments they bump into. As a result, they self-criticize continually, even as they’re diving in to do extraordinary work.
The insights of psycholinguistics tell us we can’t and won’t prepare our sentences in full before we begin them. But we can and might build our capacity to construct them on the fly. We can improve our vocabulary, enhance our focus and attention, listen more deeply, read sentences by masters to hear and feel how they flow. And, we can be open to our own voice and what it’s reaching for mid-sentence, and kindly encourage it along, forgiving it when wanders off the path.
As E.M. Forster framed it (in Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951): “Think before you speak is criticism’s motto; speak before you think is creation’s.”