Research Spotlights

The science of talk

By Professor Liz Stokoe

I’m Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University. I study ‘talk’. When I say that to people, I sometimes spot a look of creeping bemusement on their faces, as if they’re thinking: Why do we need a science of ‘talk’?

Professor Liz Stokoe Professor Liz Stokoe

My work revolves around understanding conversation and how we’re influenced by the words we hear every single day, often without realising it. We don’t just analyse talk – pouring over thousands of recorded reallife conversations in different settings – we discover what works and what doesn’t. And then we take the research into the real world, showing people how to communicate more effectively using a technique I’ve developed called the Conversation Analytic Role-play Method (CARM). It’s interesting, it’s useful and, most importantly, it works. 

I’m lucky. I fell into this work by accident. I took Psychology as an extra A level in my final year at night class because I feared I might flunk physics, which I did. I loved the Psychology course. I did well in it and decided that’s what I’d do my degree in.

I went to the old Preston Poly. It was an inauspicious beginning, I suppose – Preston isn’t known for its dreaming spires – but it was a good course and from there I found myself on a PhD studentship, where I discovered, quite by accident, that I was good at analysing social interaction.

So how does that work? It’s probably best to explain with examples.

We’re fully booked for Thursday – but shall I check for next week?” It’s a very small and no-cost intervention, but it makes everyone’s lives – theirs, those of their staff, the patients’ – a little easier.

I was approached by a group of GPs who wanted to improve the patient experience when phoning their surgeries. Everyone seems to have a view on doctors’ receptionists. They get a pretty bad press, but they have a difficult job. A huge part of their role is saying no, telling people their GP can’t see them.

However, we found striking patterns across the calls we analysed. When patients asked: “Do you have an appointment for Thursday?” receptionists often responded: “No, we’re fully booked,” and then moved to end the call with a curt: “Thanks, goodbye.” I couldn’t shake this mental image of a giant telephone handset coming down on the receiver as the faint voice of the patient could be heard pleading: “Wait, wait – what about Friday…?”

The ‘patient burden’

My research team and I spotted this phenomenon early on. We called it ‘patient burden’, where the emphasis and effort to get service of various kinds shifts to the patient, not the receptionist. Better receptionists removed the burden from patients: “We’re fully booked for Thursday – but shall I check for next week?” It’s a very small and no-cost intervention, but it makes everyone’s lives – theirs, those of their staff, the patients’ – a little easier. We found a direct link between the amount of ‘patient burden’ and national GP patient satisfaction scores. It worked.

My brilliant research associate, Rein Sikveland, and I have also been working with Metropolitan Police negotiators to refine communication training for talking with suicidal people in crisis. What we discovered was interesting. For instance, when negotiators tried to build rapport by saying, for example: “Hi, it’s Clive here, thank you for taking time to talk to me, I’d like to talk to you about what’s happened, it’s important to you and to me” – the person in crisis just hung up.

Scripted talk is the opposite of genuine rapport

Professionals from doctors to salespeople are trained to build rapport but the people they were talking to – even in terrible circumstances – can see through it. Scripted talk is the opposite of genuine rapport. Our training interventions are based on what other officers do that works. In this case, they stopped the scripted small talk for something more direct, like: “Can you tell me what you need so I can do something about it?” No flannel. No insincerity. Just straight to the point.

And in our research on cold calling for a technology company, we found similar rapport fails at the start of telephone calls. When salespeople say, “How are you doing today? How’s the weather with you?” there’s no evidence it works. We told salespeople to stop building rapport. They did, and their sales improved.

Lots of organisations persist with insincere cheeriness, in phone calls and on email. But I’d like to think, in five or six years this will gradually die out. Would I be pleased to be at the forefront of that? I suppose so.  We need to get the research out there. I was fortunate to appear on BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific in 2013, which has opened up many other audiences to the science of talk, from TED and New Scientist Live, to Latitude Festival and the Royal Institution, to change what people think they know about talk.

People are pushed and pulled by language every day. We know this. We’ve studied it. Talk matters.

Liz Stokoe

Professor Liz Stokoe

Professor of Social Interaction and Associate Dean for Research

School of Social, Political and Geographical Sciences

I joined the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough in October 2002 and was promoted to Reader (2007) and Chair (2009). I have been Associate Dean (Research) since 2013. I am also Professor II at University College of Southeast Norway (2017-2019).

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