Have You ‘Formatted’ Your Listeners?

By Timothy J. Keogh, PhD
October 29, 2018

 To improve comprehension, good speakers create mental grid lines to provide the listener with contextual structure of the message.  

Physician leaders are faced with the frequent challenge of judging whether listeners are pretending to understand them or whether the comprehension is genuine. 

To improve listener comprehension, good speakers do what can be considered to be “formatting the listener.” They create mental grid lines ― like the light gray lines in a spreadsheet. Just as information cannot be inserted into a spreadsheet unless it conforms to the outlines set up in the spreadsheet, so a listener won't be able to connect to the right context without having verbal guidelines to find that context. In other words, the listener is looking for structure. 

In an experiment to discover how often speakers provide formatting, or the structural component in a message, linguists Charlotte Linde and William Labov posed as census takers in what was called the New York City Apartment Experiment.1 They set up an office and asked apartment dwellers to describe the layout of their apartments. They found that 97 percent of those surveyed gave descriptions of their apartments in a room-by-room fashion without regard for how the listener was able to visualize the apartment. The speakers simply gave their own mental walking tour. 

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The speaker would say something like, “Inside the front door is the living room, and there are also two bedrooms, a bath and a kitchen in the back.” For the speaker, this mental walking tour was an efficient way for them to visualize all the rooms of the apartment and give a complete, although confusing, description. For the listener, however, it was quite difficult to get an accurate layout of the apartment. Never actually having seen the apartment, the listener had no helpful organizing gridlines and the speaker provided none, giving no structure to the mental walking tour. 

Three percent of the speakers, however, provided some simple, organizing pattern around which the listener could mentally view the rooms by saying something like, "Well, my apartment is in the shape of a rectangle with the living quarters on the left and the sleeping quarters on the right. As you go in the front door, there is a living room. …" The insertion of a geometric shape provides enough context that could be used as the "given," or an easy-to-comprehend structure, into which the new information could go. 

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These few apartment dwellers did what good communicators do and what physician leaders must remember: ground listeners in some mutually understandable context. 

It is interesting to speculate why only 3 percent of the subjects provided some pattern to their description of the apartments. One might deduce that it is more difficult, time consuming and takes more mental energy to stop and think about what the listener needs. On the other hand, it is rather easy to think only of getting the words out. 

Good communication is not always easy, but being listener-centered, though a bit more difficult, is actually more efficient. When the speaker provides the listener with clear mental grid lines, fewer restarts and clarifications are necessary. It prevents frustration for the speaker and for the listener, and provides satisfaction to both. 

Timothy J. Keogh, PhD, is an adjunct associate professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. This article was originally published by the American Association for Physician Leadership in January 2017.


  1. Linde, Charlotte, and Labov, William. “Spatial Networks as a Site for the Study of Language and Thought,” Language, Issue 51 (1975), pp.924-39.

Topics: Leadership

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