The Trouble with Descriptions

In the workshops that I conduct I often use an „ice break“ (interactive, fun, gamefication activities to start a workshop session, to get people to talk, make them notice small (or sometimes big) things) called „Tangram“. It’s a puzzle game that consists of only 7 pieces, two big triangles, three smaller ones, one square and one diamond. Two people sit back to back, one person gets the puzzle, the other person a piece of paper depicting a shape that can be formed by those seven pieces.

The job of the person with the paper is now to explain to the person with the puzzle how to form that shape without showing him or her the piece of paper. It’s always amazing to see how difficult this is and how limited our powers of description are.
The first questions is with whether the person with the shape on the paper sees a form or just a seemingly random arrangement of the seven pieces. Some classic pictures you can form with the tangram are for example a fox, a bird, a soccer player, a rabbit, a dancer, a sitting person, a horse, etc. (it’s another absolutely amazing thing just how many shapes you can create with just those seven pieces). Some people completely lack the imagination of seeing those shapes and perceive nothing but a jungle of triangles.

Those who can recognize, for example, the fox or the bird have a little bit of an easier time explaining. It always helps to convey the big picture first to your counterpart who cannot see the completed shape. This advantage does not necessarily result in success, since your counterpart might have a completely different picture of a bird in his or her head than the person who explains.

Then the details – amazingly difficult to confirm. Some people work with cardinal points trying to convey where the top of a triangle goes, others use a clock for reference, others degrees of a circle and so forth, meaning every person has a slightly different set of references while desperately trying to convey what he or she sees.
Language does not matter. Even if two people speak the same mother tongue – no guarantee for successful communication.

On average one out of ten pairs gets it right. Many get it almost right – one or two wrongly set pieces. Many do not get it at all and the result has not even a faint resemblance to the shape on the paper.
Every time I let workshop participants do this game I have to think of the act of writing. Just how difficult it is to convey what is in my head, the story that I see, to the reader. Will the reader „get“ what I mean when I write it this way or that way? On top of that I am writing in a second language.

I’m looking forward to the upcoming Hal-Con (11th and 12th of April) where I will be in a panel with our GoH (guest of honor) Hannu Rajaniemi, who, like me, writes in English instead of his native tongue (Finnish for him, German for me). We’ll discuss about the difficulties, advantages and disadvantages of writing in a second language.

I recommend that every writer tries to play the tangram game once (or twice) to experience just how difficult it is to convey what you want to say with nothing but a bunch of inadequate words. And maybe I take the tangram game with me to Hal-Con and try it out there too 😉