Thursday 4 December 2014

"Uh-huh. Mhm. Wow": How Backchannels influence the Story

Reproduced with permission:

When we hear someone telling a story or narrating an event, it is not uncommon to hear listeners responding with mhm, uh-huh, wow, oh, and the like. At face value, these words or short phrases may not seem to contribute to the conversation. Sure, they indicate attention and agreement, but how much do they actually influence the story being told? In a recent study on such responses, researchers Jackson Tolin and Jean E. Fox Tree argue that these backchannels, as they are called, actually do influence the narrative.

Tolin and Fox Tree obtained recordings of 30 conversations between undergraduate students. Conversations were 12 minutes in length and freely structured, but began with bad roommate experiences (because we all know complaints generate the best stories). Several relevant interactions were then extracted.

In their data, the authors distinguished between generic backchannels and specific backchannels. While both signal the attention of the listener, generic backchannels typically display comprehension and reception. Words like mhm and uh huh are considered generic backchannels: after using these, speakers often continued their story by providing new information. On the other hand, specific backchannels convey added information, showing the listeners' reaction to what was just said. Specific backchannels include oh my god, wow, and yeah. When a listener responded with a specific backchannel, the speaker was observed to then elaborate on whatever the listener was responding to.

The researchers then conducted an experiment using 20 short written dialogues from the data. These dialogues captured short narratives, but with an interesting twist—the parts after the backchannel were missing. Participants thus never knew what the storyteller said after the backchannel. The backchannels were also altered to be either generic or specific. Participants then guessed how the story would unfold by writing what they thought the storyteller would have said next.

Despite being unaware of the full original contexts of these recordings, the participants displayed some surprisingly consistent patterns. When a generic backchannel was presented, the participants were more likely to simply continue the story by presenting new information. To do so, they also used words such as well and so. However, when a specific backchannel was presented, participants were more likely to elaborate on the previous point in the story. They were also more likely to explicitly acknowledge the backchannel itself by saying things like yeah.

These differences show that participants actually perceive the backchannels to be important in determining their choice of what comes next. The backchannels therefore have a role in shaping the story telling. When you use a specific backchannel such as wow, you actually invite an elaboration, thereby steering the story, allowing the storyteller to add emphasis and elaboration. Accordingly, the type of backchannel gives a sense of predictability about what kind of information would follow it. This might make it easier for people to follow a particular conversation.

To conclude, backchannels are not simply passive, but do actively influence the outcome of =storytelling. For example, the researchers suggested that audiences who provide less specific backchannels could result in a storyteller telling a... well... boring story. So perhaps if you get bored by someone carrying on and on, you might like to try a specific backchannel every once in a while!

 Tolins, Jackson and Fox Tree, Jean E. (2014) Adressee backchannels steer narrative development. Journal of Pragmatics 70: 152-164.

This summary was written by Darren Hum Chong Kai

Friday 21 November 2014

Sensationalism unmasked: how to design newsworthy headlines

Have digital media made news headlines more sensational?

Once upon a time, when the press was the queen of the media, professional standards demanded news reports to be an accurate, objective and precise accounts of events. Since then, TV and digital media have stepped in, and the objectives of the media have been transformed. The competition for information has been replaced by the competition for attention. The larger audience base you have, the better, and the best way to gain an audience is to create a sensation –a report about an unusual, extraordinary incident – or to reveal a secret.

However the vast majority of news stories have little to do with our personal lives, so why should we spend time reading about a scandalous imprisonment of yet another maniac?   Katarzyna Molek-Kozakowska has analysed the special linguistic techniques used to grab the readers` attention, making a headline seem interesting and relevant and revealing some sort of a mystery.

Some topics are inherently more sensational than others, no doubt. Juicy gossip about Angelina Jolie`s special pyjamas is likely to attract a greater audience than a sombre report on bitter living conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the main focus of Molek-Kozakowska`s research was on the linguistic packaging of news: not on what we report, but on how we report it in order to hook some extra readers. She picked a total of 120 headlines, subheadlines and lead-ins from the most read Daily Mail articles, and compiled a survey asking participants which of the headlines seemed the most sensational and what made them so. Later, the sensationalizing strategies were discussed in focus groups in more detail.

The research identified several features of sensationalism, pertaining solely to language use, not to the topic. Technique number one hinges on the narrative structure. Fairly sensational headlines are built in a peculiar way. The climax – the part of the story with the greatest suspense – goes first, followed by the complication – a technical term for bits of narrative that say what happened. The resolution, or the ‘how it all ended’ bit concludes the list. Beginning with the climax arouses  the reader’s curiosity and makes them want to find out more about this story. For example:

(1) [Humbling of MISTER Goodwin]: Four years [after the biggest banking disaster in    British history], [the man who caused it sees his knighthood shredded] (1 Feb. 2012)
[climax] [complication] [resolution]

The next way to make an attention grabbing headline is to use emotive and evaluative vocabulary, as well as strategies such as puns or idioms adapted from names of films. Consider the following:

(2) Elf and safety threat to blood donors: Nurses banned from tapping skin to raise veins (13 Jan. 2012)

(3) ‘Schettino’s a braggart, a show-off and drove the Costa Concordia like a Ferrari’, claims his former captain as ship slips even further into the sea (18 Jan. 2012)

The words in italics in (3) evoke mostly negative connotations – well, that`s because in the media negative items usually have a greater news value than positive. Hence the extensive use of negative emotive vocabulary.

In short, if you happen to be a budding journalist, it`s worth skimming through Molek-Kozakowska`s paper before writing your news item – maybe that will help you to turn a mundane report into a sensation!
Molek-Kozakowska, Katarzyna (2013) Towards a pragma-linguistic framework for the study of sensationalism in news headlines. Discourse & Communication 7(2) 173 –197.
doi. 10.1177/1750481312471668

This summary was written by Marina Myntsykovska

Monday 3 November 2014

Climb it, film it, share it: multimodality and the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Doing the Pisa Push

Imagine you`re on a holiday of a lifetime, standing in front of a world-famous site, say the Tower of Pisa. So what do you do? What a silly question, you might think:  climb it and take funny pictures, of course! But that`s the thing: how do you know what to do? Where does that knowledge come from and what turns millions of good citizens into jostling tourist crowds?

According to Crispin Thurlow and Adam Jaworski, there`s more to tourism than merely seeing what other have already seen, posted on Flickr and written tons of guidebooks about. The researchers state that we never simply visit places, but we also take our share in shaping and making the place itself – that`s why the same sites have been attracting vast numbers of visitors for decades. 

This is achieved through the so-called hermeneutic cycle, formed by a complex layering of mediatised representations (for example, how a site is depicted in guidebooks or in travelogues), mediated actions (for instance, performing the Pisa Push –that is, posing for a photograph to create an illusion of supporting the Leaning Tower) and remediated practices, with digital technologies enabling us to reproduce and share experiences with the wider public in a split second. Another aspect of interest is the enactment of place – which is the capacity to ‘make’ space through the positioning of body.

The authors used two sources of data in researching Tower of Pisa tourist practices: 10 video clips, extracted from over three hours of footage filmed during the observation of the site, and a ten-minute YouTube video of climbing the Tower, posted by an American visitor. These videos represent typical activity at the site. Body movement and gesture were a focal point of the research.

The most meaningful element was the Pisa Push. Whether supporting or pushing the Tower, that`s what you do to show you`re on the case, you have the knowledge of what other tourists do in Pisa. It also gives you a sense of ownership and power over space, albeit for a very short time.  Another commonly performed action is pointing. It can be technologically mediated by cameras or laser-pointers, and doesn’t necessarily involve fingers. Whatever you choose, pointing is always indicative not only of the object being pointed at, but also of the pointer. Thus, by pointing, one points not only to the site, but also to oneself. On top of that, using a camera enables us to capture that moment for posterity – which, in short, could probably be called the essence of tourism.

The second piece of data testifies to tourist practice as a ‘safe adventure’. The point of it all is to climb all the 294 steps to the top – that`s how this amateur video is staged, with the ascent being its most thrilling point, not the descent. Once again, it gives you a sense of personal achievement, because you temporarily conquer the Tower from bottom to top, despite the warning signs.

So, next time you`re on holiday, keep in mind that you can do more than view sites – you can make them!
Thurlow, Crispin and Adam Jaworski (2014). ‘Two hundred ninety-four’: Remediation and multimodal performance in tourist placemaking. Journal of Sociolinguistics 18 (4): 459-494.

doi. 10.1111/josl.12090

This summary was written by Marina Myntsykovska.