February 3, 2012

Don't say "you" when you mean "I"



In this interview with Ellen Degeneres, Seal talks about his separation from his wife, Heidi Klum. Notice his use of second person ("you") narrative in telling his story in this clip, rather than the more appropriate first person ("I").



Here are a couple of quotes:

"You go into these things with the greatest intentions."

"When you say 'I do,' when you say, 'Till death do us part,' those vows hold value, they're not just words."

"You just grow apart after awhile. I mean, you try and you work through it, and the thing that you quickly realize when you're married and you become a parent, is that you do the best that you can. And it makes you actually appreciate your parents a lot more."

Seal is telling his own story, yet is de-personalizing it by using the second person. Have you ever noticed yourself doing this?

First person is typically the method we use when telling a story about ourselves ("I"). If we're telling a story about someone else, we use third person ("he" or "she" or "they.") Second person is less common when telling a story, but is used more when addressing the reader "... a very common technique of several popular and non- or quasi-fictional written genres such as guide books, self-help books, do-it-yourself manuals, interactive fiction, role-playing games, gamebooks ... musical lyrics, advertisements and also blogs." (From Wikipedia)

Perhaps Seal is uncomfortable talking about his situation and therefore finds it easier to distance himself from the pain by saying, "you." Perhaps he's trying to maintain a professional demeanor and uses "you" to keep the conversation more formal and general (another way of doing this would be to use "one," as in "One goes into these things with the greatest intentions." Even more de-personalizing!). Whatever the reason, it doesn't work here, and it doesn't work in a presentation.

Why not?

1. Audiences relate to you as a person when you talk about your own experiences in the first person. You are speaking from your heart and the audience can connect to that. "I" clearly defines the subject of the story.

2. However, when a speaker tells a story using the second person "you," it sounds like he's making an assumption that the audience has had the same experience, that this is everyone's story. This isn't the same as relating to or connecting to a person. I find myself thinking, "No, I've been married for 22 years and we haven't grown apart. That's you, not me."

Is there a time when "you" is appropriate? Yes, but not in the context above.

1. Use "you" when asking questions of the audience or giving instructions to the audience. "Have you experienced this?" "What happened when you tried this?" "How many of you feel this way?" This is an effective way of using "you" to find out how the audience is relating to your topic and to let them talk about themselves without misplaced assumptions getting in the way.

2. Use "you" when giving instructions or talking directly to or about your audience or reader (as I'm doing in this blog post). "Before you start writing your presentation, find out what the audience needs, wants and cares about." "When you design your slides, make sure the font is big enough for people in the back row to read." In this case, you are offering the audience solutions and speaking directly to them, and you want to make it all about them and what's important to them.

When you're talking about yourself, use "I."

When you're talking about your audience, use "you."

Don't use "you" to talk about yourself; it just creates distance and a lack of connection.

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