How to Communicate With Your Dragon

This week on DBW, I am featuring a guest post by Andrew Knighton. Andrew writes fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk, and shares my passion for clear communication. Welcome to DBW, Andrew!

Communication isn’t easy, which is a shame, because it’s vital to human life. The ability to tell someone else how to grow crops, or how to read and write, or that you love them – these are fundamentals of human life.

Fortunately there are lessons on communication, as on everything in life, in that greatest source of human lessons – children’s animated fantasy films. Kids’ films get away with what adult films can’t, both in wild flights of imagination and in teaching us, gently but firmly, lessons in how to live. So today we’re going to learn from How To Train Your Dragon.

Set patterns – a communication problem

One of the greatest barriers to communication is that we each tend towards a single way of communicating. My way might not be the same as yours, but it’s my way and I’ll default to it every time. The same way of expressing ideas, the same mannerisms of speech, the same way of writing. Yoda doesn’t start using good grammar when Luke’s back is turned – he’s just being himself.

We can learn different ways to communicate – it’s a huge part of teacher training, as well as many management courses. But working out which style to apply in which situation? That can be far trickier.

How to train your humanHow to Train Your Dragon

This is where the wonderful How To Train Your Dragon comes in. You know that scene in the middle where… wait, you don’t know that scene, you haven’t seen the film, you thought it was just for kids? Well, you should probably fix that, because How To Train Your Dragon is a great slice of imaginative modern fantasy. A story of Vikings and monsters, of ambition and misunderstanding, of having your view of the world turned on its head.

Oh, and communication. The film is full of problems with poor communication and solutions that come from people communicating. No more so than in a scene where Hiccup, our teenage protagonist, tries for the first time to communicate with Toothless the dragon. The two have no language in common, no shared frame of understanding. How will he manage it?

The answer is trial and error. Hiccup uses gestures, speech, touch, even dirt drawings and piles of food. When Toothless seems wary of his raw fish dinner, Hiccup himself takes a scaly, slippery bite. No tactic works perfectly the first time, but by trying different approaches, by persisting not with his own preferred communication style but with everything he can think of, he eventually gets through.

Trial and error

I’m not suggesting that you bring raw fish to your next meeting, or try to resolve family conflicts by doodling in the dirt. But approaching the same act of communication in different ways can reap rich rewards.

I used to work in process improvement. As part of that job I often had to persuade managers to take risks in changing working practices. I tried using statistics. I tried using diagrams. I tried impassioned speeches and promises that I’d do all the work if they just let me fix this damn thing. Then one day, through endless trial and error, I discovered the tactic that worked on the worst of them – tell them my idea, shut up, and wait six months for them to think the idea was their own. Then they’d be all over it.

This was not my preferred way of persuading people. It was not what any of my training had taught me. But trial and error, not persisting at things that didn’t work, taught me how to do it. Like Hiccup, I had trained my managerial dragons.

Just keep trying

So go forth and try different ways of communicating. Don’t persist with what doesn’t work. Don’t even persist with what half works. Keep trying new things in new situations, and sooner or later you’ll find the right approach to each one.

And while you’re about it, you should go see How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is out now. Because what could be better than Vikings fighting dragons? That’s right – Vikings riding dragons!


If you enjoyed Andrew’s post, you should check out his blog or his wonderful short story “Surprise Me,” which was recently published in Daily Science Fiction.

This is the first time I’ve had a guest post. I’d love to know what you think, so please feel free to comment below. I like the idea of hosting occasional guest posts from my blogging community. If you’re feeling inspired by DBW to write about communication within your favourite sci-fi/fantasy story universe, please write to me and we can chat about it!

Networking in a Strange Land

This past weekend, I attended the Editors’ Association of Canada annual conference. I had been looking forward to this event and I was not disappointed. The weekend was jam-packed full of sessions on self-publishing, social media, and the future of editing in the digital space. Plus, I had a chance to meet people like fellow blogger and awesome grammarphile Suzanne Purkis from Apoplectic Apostrophes.

I knew going in to this conference that it would be a great opportunity to network with writers and editors that I hadn’t met yet.

Wait a second…I was going to have to talk to new people all weekend? Ummm….

All of you introverts out there know exactly how much *fun* it is speaking with groups of people at large events. We’re the strangers in a strange land, hoping that someone will grok us immediately so that we don’t have to exhaust ourselves putting on a show. We always have a sneaking suspicion that other people have figured out we don’t belong here.

John Carter among the Tharks - What do you think? Should we toss him out, or have fun with him first?

What do you think? Should we toss him out, or have fun with him first?
(Image from John Carter)

Luckily, I was not the only one feeling this apprehension. There was a popular discussion on the EAC LinkedIn group before the conference on networking for introverts (where many of us sang the praises of Susan Cain’s Quiet). EAC member Elizabeth Macfie chimed in by writing an excellent post full of networking tips. Armed with this information, I bravely went forth and connected with many people. I even managed to find other fans of speculative fiction, like word sorceress Vanessa Ricci-Thode and graphic novel editing guru Alison Kooistra.

I’d like to share with you some of the networking tips that helped me survive my trip to this alien land known as a “business conference.”

Sue’s Networking Tips for Introverts

1. Try to know people before you go. See what you can find out about the people who are attending or speaking at the event. Look at their pictures on LinkedIn so that you will recognize them when you see them. Find out what they write about or what they post on their websites. The strange will become familiar, and you’ll have a starting point for a conversation.

(I was lucky that the EAC had a conference buddies program, where you could email with people ahead of the event and not feel alone when you got there. This was a great boon for introverts. Thank you to Jean, Anne, Avery, and Marie-Christine for being my conference buddies!)

2. Dress for confidence. Wear the outfit that makes you feel like you’re a star. You’re not there to blend in—you’re there to show your best self. Stop worrying about being different and celebrate those differences. At the conference, I saw someone wearing an unusual knit dress and another person wearing a tiara. Both of them pulled their outfits off with panache.

3. Keep your cards ready. You don’t want to be fumbling over your business cards and feeling like you have too many fingers as you try to make connections. Networking can be awkward enough. Put your cards in your name tag holder so that you can take them out quickly, and put other people’s cards at the front so you don’t mix the cards up.

4. Take a break. You can’t be “on” all the time. Spend five minutes wandering away to a quiet place and drink a coffee in silence. Pretend you’re out in deep space. Take the opportunity to study your agenda so you know where you’re going next. You don’t want to waste your mental energy thinking about plans when you go back in to meet people.

5. Focus on your goals. Why are you there? Is there a particular person you want to meet? Is there a topic you are interested in learning more about? Go where you will have the best chance of meeting your goals. Thinking about your goals will stop you from feeling overwhelmed, and help you avoid taking on too much.

I’m already looking forward to the 2015 EAC conference in Toronto, which is going international. Next year I will have the chance to meet writers and editors from the US, the UK, and Australia. Then it will be my turn to make strangers in a strange land feel welcome. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Can You Read My Mind?

Today, I’d like to share a story from the early days of my career. It’s the story of a dedicated manager, a clueless employee, and the complete failure of telepathic communication.

It’s the middle of a long afternoon. I’m thinking about going for a tea break when my manager storms into the room. She is visibly upset, and launches into an explanation of a crisis that one of our clients is having. I listen intently. While she is talking, my mind is churning. I am figuring out what I need to do to handle the problem. Just as I’ve solved it, my boss suddenly yells at me: “You’re not taking this seriously!”

All I can do is stare at her. Can’t she see that this problem is all I’m thinking about? While I am still in shock, she tells me to take care of it and stomps off. I don’t get a chance to explain. The thought there goes my performance rating drifts through my mind.

I learned an important lesson that day: People cannot read your mind.

(Aliens are a different story. Imagine if your manager was Martian Manhunter from the Justice League. Hmm, maybe not a good idea.)

Martian Manhunter

Reveal your secrets to me…

The moral of the story? Since people can’t read your mind, you need to rely on what they can read:

  • Your words, which tell them what you are thinking.
  • Your expressions, which show them what you are feeling.
  • Your actions, which prove to them who you really are.

What could I have done differently in this situation?


I didn’t say anything to my manager. I was too busy thinking about what I needed to do next, when I should have been focused on her.

People need to know that you are listening to them. Don’t just stand there in silence. Remember to respond by saying things like “Mmmhmmm” or “Yes?” or “That’s terrible!” Ask questions to show that you are taking them seriously. Repeat their words back to them in your own words, so that they know you have understood them.


When I’m thinking deeply about something, I tend to put on my “poker face.” It can be hard to read my expression. It could mean boredom, or indifference, or deliberate blocking of negative thoughts (like “Wow, my boss is an idiot!”). I had my poker face on that day.

People need to know that you care about what they are saying. Since that day, I’ve worked at adding expression to my poker face. (Just like Data from Star Trek: TNG did in his quest to become more human.)

Data's Day on Star Trek TNG

I hope I’m doing a better job than that, though! Ouch.

I have also learned to nod my head, lean toward the person who is speaking, and leave my arms uncrossed. All of these signals show that I am interested in what the other person has to say.


This was the only part I got right. After my manager left me, I got right on to solving that client problem. Later on, she thanked me for my work. I had demonstrated that I took the crisis seriously. But my manager might still wonder: Did I care because she yelled at me, or did I care because it was important to me? Luckily, I got other opportunities to prove myself and have her get to know who I am. Sometimes, all we get is one shot.

Don’t waste your opportunity. Make sure you use all three of your powers to reach a meeting of the minds. It’s almost as good as telepathy.


Have you ever experienced a time when someone failed to read you? Please share your stories below…

Which Avenger will you be today?

With Captain America: The Winter Soldier out in theatres, I have Marvel superheroes on the brain. And I’ve realized that Marvel’s The Avengers is not just a story about a superhero team—it’s a story about communication.

Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury spends the first half of the Avengers movie gathering the team and trying to get them to work together. This is an uphill battle, largely because of the team members’ different communication styles. They may be talking to each other, but they are not communicating. It’s only when they learn to adjust their styles that they become an effective fighting force.

If you want to work well with your own team, you may need to adjust your communication style. Ask yourself: Which Avenger should I be today?

Let’s take a look at some of your options.

Iron Man

“The Avengers. It’s what we call ourselves, sort of like a team. ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ type of thing.”

Iron Man (Tony Stark)

Communication Style: Informal

Iron Man is the life of the party. He’s the casual genius who talks a lot and makes people laugh. It’s time to be Iron Man when you are hanging out with good friends and colleagues or writing a friendly note to someone you know well. Just be careful you don’t let your words run away from you—sometimes Iron Man can talk too much and annoy supervillains. Bad idea.

Thor from the Avengers

“So you take the world I love as recompense for your imagined slights?”


Communication Style: Formal

Thor is a Norse god, so he uses formal language and makes solemn pronouncements. You may need to channel Thor when you are speaking with strangers, apologizing to unhappy customers, or writing up a business proposal. Just don’t come across as too formal—otherwise you’ll be known as the unfriendly person with the scary hammer.

Captain America

“I went under, the world was at war, I wake up, they say we won. They didn’t say what we lost.”

Captain America (Steve Rogers)

Communication Style: Direct

Captain America is honest and straightforward. He comes from a military background, so he’s used to getting to the point. Be Captain America with managers and executives—they love quick messages that tell it like it is (otherwise known as executive summaries). You may need to tweak this style when you feel the need to be tactful. Otherwise, it’s good to be the Cap.


“Hulk smash!”

Hulk (NOT Bruce Banner)

Communication Style: Authoritative

When all else fails, it’s time to be the Hulk. Get your green on when you need to let people know it’s your way or the highway. You may want to use more words than the Hulk, though. And possibly not smash as many things. Especially if you want people to ever talk to you again.

So, there you have it. Different communication styles work well for different situations. What are you going to face today? Who are you going to need to be? Maybe you should try a new style on for size. Then you, too, can be part of a mighty team.

Which Avenger will you be today? Inquiring minds want to know…

When universes collide

Have you ever suffered through a one-sided conversation? Maybe you have nothing in common with the other person, and you find the topic dead boring. Or maybe your conversation partner is an “expert” on everything, and is lecturing you about what you should do. This is sheer torture, you think. When can I make my escape?

Consider yourself lucky. You could be listening to Vogon poetry.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells us that Vogon poetry is the third worst in the universe. (Earth poetry is the worst, of course.) The Vogons know how much everyone hates their poems, but they force people to listen to them out of “sheer bloodymindedness.” Just witness what happens at a friendly Vogon poetry reading:

The sweat stood out cold on Ford Prefect’s brow, and slid round the electrodes attached to his temples. These were attached to a battery of electronic equipment—imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers—all designed to heighten his experience of the poem and make sure that not a nuance of the poet’s thought was lost.

– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Let’s face it, we all have an inner Vogon. We can get so caught up in what we think is important that we ignore what everyone else thinks. We keep on talking or writing, hoping that the sheer volume of our words will convince others of our rightness.

If you truly want to get your message across, remember that you are not the centre of the universe.  Everyone sees things from a unique point of view. You need to connect with others, not collide with them. Here’s some ways you can do this:

  • Address the “So what?” factor. This is also known as WIIFM or “What’s in it for me?” Why should people care about what you have to say? How will it benefit them? You may think the inner workings of the Infinite Improbability Drive are fascinating, but that doesn’t mean they will. Focus on the “So what?” and your message will be more successful.
  • Show some respect. Respect your conversation partner’s time by keeping your message short. Respect that person’s intellect by listening to what he or she has to say. In any conversation, try to spend more time listening than talking. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.
  • Speak in their language. Don’t use uncommon words or jargon that a lot of people don’t know. Your audience shouldn’t need a Babel fish to understand what you are saying.  If you need to use an unusual term to get your message across, then smoothly define it and move on.

And if you find yourself stuck listening to that annoying person? Just remember what The Hitchhiker’s Guide tells us in “large friendly letters” on the cover:

Picture by Jim Linwood. Source: Wikimedia Commons.CC-BY-2.0

Picture by Jim Linwood. Source: Wikimedia Commons.CC-BY-2.0

It will be over soon. Then you can go back to enjoying your universe.