Love Your Longer Sentences

Communicate Like a Human: Lesson 4.


Longer sentences turn a lecture into a conversation


Google Assistant loves a nice, long chat.


That’s not entirely fair.


It isn’t the case that the assistant who lives in your smart speaker is some own-brand, second cousin version of the wunderkind of the web. When responding to your question-shaped command, he will fulfil the task in as perfunctory a manner as Siri or Alexa.


But when your question is less direct, Google Assistant will respond in a more conversational manner. His sentences become longer as he seems to deliberate the options that are available.


Much like we do as humans.


TL:DR?

 
 

The unplanned questions


Put anyone of any age in front of the technology and tell them to ask a question.


Then watch the naughty child in them come alive as they try to make a disembodied voice say something funny.


I don’t mean questions that are rude or try to illicit swearing. Just anything that requires a response broader than "What time is it".


The sort of questions that, if asked to a human, would lead to a slight pause in the conversation while they thought of their answer.


It didn't take long for the developers to realise we were asking questions of the machines that weren't related to services provided. For example, it is said that over a million people a year propose to Alexa. So they needed to program responses that could adequately deal with the unplanned questions.


Such responses sit outside of the devices’ natural environment. Alexa and Siri deliver them as adequately as a talented actor speaks the lines given to them.


Google Assistant owns them.

 

Longer sentences are less grammar-bound


We use longer sentences in unplanned conversations where we need to consider our thoughts or respond to several points raised. For this reason, they are less bound by the restrictions of learned grammar.


Google Assistant structures his responses as though taking tonal cues for the exchange from the asker. It feels like he is in on the joke. He seems to interject. He speaks over himself when a new thought comes to mind, and pauses and 'hmm's when unsure.


All this makes his sentences longer. And this fits our expectations of conversation structure.


When you compare the responses of all the VAs – something you’re unlikely to ever do in life – the difference in approach is impossible to miss.


We measured the sentence length of each of the VAs. Siri's were the shortest, but there was nothing significant between hers and Alexa's.


Google used, on average, 3 words for every one of theirs.

 

Longer sentences are more human


We have increased the speed of Google’s answers in the clips here just for fun, but you can hear him in actual time in the full video. The clearest demonstration is at the start when we asked, 'Can we talk?'


Alexa and Siri both responded by confirming they could talk.


As the Grammar Genius would enjoy pointing out, grammatically this is the correct way to answer the question as it had been posed. Instead of asking 'May we talk’, I had only asked something factual. So eliciting the factual response.


Most humans don’t think like that. Neither did Google. Instead, he took it as a cue for conversation, building on his response three times before we hit the Sorry wall.


First, he just blatantly shows off. He then explains the art of conversation, before sharing some unasked-for trivia and circling back to the offer of a service. (Here a weather forecast.)


I didn’t have to ask further questions to prompt this. If I agreed with each inflected question at the end of his sentences, he took this as a cue to continue.


It was as though he was really reacting in that moment spontaneously.


It was exactly like having a conversation.

 

Longer sentences create space


Longer sentences create space. They slow down the pace. Whether speaking or writing, always be conscious of creating room for your audience to think. A longer sentence provides air for your audience that will help keep them remain engaged.


As well as giving room for explanation, space allows you to make suggestions, provide opinion, and give thoughts. Their conversational tone means you can put your points forward in a way that feels inclusive. They are not as didactic as short sentences.


Long sentences work naturally in the middle of paragraphs. They elaborate on a brief introduction. They can be followed with a neat summary. They are perfect when you want to paint a picture to bring a point to life. They allow you to hold hands with your audience and take them on a short journey. They provide the room for emotion to partner logic.

 
A close up of a lonely panda



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When longer is too long


If you only use longer sentences, it is easy to go off-topic or get lost in the conversation. Nobody likes a waffle. But this isn’t improvisation and you can minimise the risk by planning where and how to use longer sentences.


A good way to check if you might veer off into a chasm is to count your commas.


Most people think of a comma as a brief pause, or a breath when reading. You don’t want to be gasping throughout, so use this as a guide.


All cases are individual, but a good benchmark is if there are over four commas in your sentence, the sentence is probably too long.

 

Finally...

  • Longer sentences make your tone more conversational.

  • Combine longer sentences with shorter sentences to vary your writing and maintain attention from your audience.

  • Use longer sentences in the middle of paragraphs or pages so they provide the ideal filling to your sandwich.

  • When opening with a long sentence, following with a couple of 4-worders can be useful.

  • Use longer sentences at the end of sections or pages to effectively bring together all the previously made points in a neat summary your audience can take away.

  • Like that.

  • Before we just ruined it with that.

 

On to Lesson 5: When It's Okay to 'We'

 

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