Erica Marx

500 year gap

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In pairs, one person describes a modern appliance to someone from 500 years ago



- understand the responsibility of speaker to speak language of listener
- example of attitude to approach gaps in understanding


• In each pair assign a person A and person B. 

•  Person B plays the role of someone from 500 years ago.

• Person A endeavors to explain a modern-day object (e.g., a cell phone, a television, an airplane, a microwave oven) to person B.

• Partners switch roles and repeat.

Encourage person B to wholeheartedly embrace the character and mind-set of someone from 500 years ago. Share some context for 500 years ago: For example, electricity did not come into use until the 1800's. Slavery began in the early 1600's in the USA, so 500 years ago predates this. Familiarize yourself with local events of 500 years ago given your location and audience to help your audience and adjust as needed so people can have a similar shared context for the exercise.

• Perhaps demo the activity, playing person B. Illustrate misunderstanding of non-period words, for example: "Wait, you press a button? Like on my shirt?" 

• Tell the As the object secretly, without the Bs knowing.

• Add a round in which pairs explain to each other some technical process or skill or area of knowledge that they are expert in, but their partner is not familiar with.

• From Alan Alda:
Round 1: Use real cell phones. Pretend it rings. Now explain to person 2 what is happening. 

Round 2: Now partner has a broken finger. Convince them to put it in an x-ray machine.

Debrief: What did people do to communicate? What did you do physically? (lean in, touching) What do you think I saw as a facilitator? Note difference between the two - also related to where the person was coming from (they had a pain, cared more about that). Explain problem it solves not how it works. You took their hand. You showed them not tell them. Some connected w/story (has happened to me). 

Who they are & how to connect? What is their goal? Where you want to go?

 • How did you approach your task at first?
• What strategies did you use?
• What was it like to take on the mindset of someone from 500 years ago?

• What judgments did you make or not make about the inability of the person from 500 years ago to understand the object?
• What is this like in real life? What gaps do you need to navigate?
• How can thinking of those gaps like you thought of this gap help you be a more effective communicator? 

What responsibility does the speaker hold to make sure the listener understands?


Source: Training to Imagine book by Kat Koppett, she cites Performance of a Lifetime.

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