When You Whisper

I once taught middle school three days straight with laryngitis. I started the week with a scratchy throat that turned into a croaky voice and then into no voice at all. Except for a whisper. And that’s what I used for three of the easiest days of teaching I’d ever had.

Partly the students were being nice. Because of my sore throat, they took pity. But as class periods ticked by, each as smooth as another, I began to think I was learning something important. 

The most visible change was student posture. Instead of slouching or slumping over to fend off a teacher voice coming at them, they leaned forward, their ears and eyes actively trying to catch the words I said.

That’s the strange thing about humans. We are attracted to what is not readily available to us. If it’s too easy to get, we don’t value it. And if we’re pushed into it, we turn away.

This is why force feeding doesn’t work. Last week I was caring for my ninety-three-year-old mother who lost her appetite. A plateful of food revolted her. She grew weaker as the pounds kept dropping. One day my father, in a new ploy, cut her portion down to appetizer size. And she asked for more. Watching this took me back to when our children were babies. If I pushed a pacifier further into their mouths, they spit it right back. It was only when I pulled it back that they latched on.

Film maker Ken Burns has noticed this dynamic. In his documentaries, he has used hundreds of first-person narrators. To find one good storyteller he sometimes evaluates 200 people. Burns has noticed an easy-to-spot trait that most good storytellers have in common. They lean back as they talk. And what happens next, Burns says, is that their listeners lean in.

Too often, I got in wrong—leaning forward so far my students instinctively leaned back.

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