Hearing and Listening, According to Nora Ephron

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There is a difference between hearing and listening, especially in improv. I’ve discussed this difference as recently as last week — the basics being that to hear someone in an improv scene means reading the subtext beneath their words.

But here’s a story that, for me, says it all:

Nora Ephron, who wrote Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, started out as a journalist. On the first day of her high-school journalism class, her teacher announced the first assignment. Everyone would write the lead for a newspaper story. He then gave the class the facts of the story: “Kenneth Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Hutchins, and California governor Pat Brown.”

The students began pecking out their headlines on their typewriters. According to Ephron, she and most of the other students produced leads that simply reordered the facts and condensed them into a single sentence: “Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Hutchins will address the Beverly Hills High School faculty Thursday in Sacramento … blah blah blah.”

The teacher read through the leads quickly. Then he set them aside and paused for a moment. Finally, he said, “The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school next Thursday.'”

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(Borrowed from the excellent marketing book, Made to Stick.)

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