Terry Prone: Many smart people in public life need to learn when to stop talking 

If public figures cannot curb their monologue, we need someone to invent a gadget that sounds an alarm after the first 90-seconds of guff, writes Terry Prone
Terry Prone: Many smart people in public life need to learn when to stop talking 

File picture.

IT sits there, in its neat little presentation box, looking high-tech and eager to serve. I sanitise it once a month, even though it hasn’t been used in years. You never know the day nor the hour that it will be called upon again.

I bought it in an American airport shop called Brookstone, which was invented for early-adopters and suckers. They specialise in gadgetry that is novel and expensive. They also do memory foam pillows, which would seem a confusion of offering, but who knows.

This little gadget had a card beside it explaining it had been developed to meet the needs of long-distance truckers who found that after a certain length of time on relentlessly similar and frequently featureless open roads, they tended to nod off. Literally. 

While Europe installed all sorts of gadgets directly into the truck to ensure no driver exceeded a particular length of time behind the wheel, the US was less strict at the time, and so someone came up with the idea of saving the driver’s life — plus the lives of other road users which could be endangered by an artic on the loose — by ensuring the trucker couldn’t fall asleep.

The gadget they invented looked like an external hearing aid that sat on the outside of the ear held on by its own semicircular shape. The theory was that when the driver began to nod off, they also, in the nature of things, began to nod forward, and that this head movement was the giveaway which might also serve as a cue for the technology. 

It was designed so that the moment the driver’s head went forward and down, the yoke hanging on the ear screamed like an electronic banshee right into the wearer’s ear. It was so designed that it wouldn’t be heard by anyone other than the trucker, which turned out to be useful, later on, to one Irish user.

I bought it because I lived in terror of my beloved husband falling asleep at the wheel of his car. Since he fell asleep everywhere else with a randomness reminiscent of the dormouse in Alice through the Looking Glass, it seemed logical that he would do it when driving. And here was the prevention. All he had to do was hang it on his ear and he was good to go.

He took one look at it and told me where to stick it. No bloody way, was his starting negotiation point and he worked within seconds to frozen-faced silent fury. The very idea. I took the gadget and stowed it carefully where he couldn’t be offended by seeing it but whence it might be retrieved if he came around. He didn’t. He never came around to anything he hated — particularly, but not exclusively, cucumbers.

Around the same time, I had a political client you wouldn’t remember because, despite my depth of rage at him at the time, I can’t put a name on him right now. This bloke thought he was handsome and charming. The first, yes. The second, no. 

He had also spent some time out in Brussels, which had given him the habit of the two-cheek kiss. We’re not talking air-kisses, here. This was skin to skin on both sides. Plus, if you were unlucky, a warm arm circling your waist (if you had one — I didn’t) and a hand lightly squeezing your shoulder. I think he did it only to women, but maybe he was an equal-opportunities offender. The thing is, I was so surprised the first couple of times he did it, I let it pass. 

The third time, I held him off like I was about to lecture him on social distancing, although this was long before that concept. I happen to have unusually long arms. Not saying my wrists drag on the ground like a gorilla's, but I could certainly have played the double bass. So once I had this politician at the far end of my two arms, I had his attention. I good-humouredly told him that being mauled by him wasn’t going to happen. That day or any other day. Or I would fire him as a client.

He nodded and laughed and, a week later, did it again. I handed him over to another consultant in the company, who accepted it with the grace expected when the boss gives you a hospital pass, and forgot about him. Until the consultant came to me and said the politician might have “that sleeping sickness” because, during some of the public events happening during the election then being fought, he was falling asleep in an embarrassingly visible way.

“Must be all the energy he’s expending, kissing people right left and centre,” I said.

“He’s a client,” the consultant said. “And we have to find a solution.” 

“I have the very thing,” I said and the next day proffered the trucker gizmo. Which worked a treat and contributed greatly to the myth of my omniscience, because I let on that I had purchased it with just such an exigency in mind.

But here’s the thing. A slight variation on that technology is now required and needs inventing, smartish. It could probably be embedded in a smartwatch. Instead of alerting the wearer to the possibility of falling asleep, this yoke would alert them to the need to shut up. Logorrhoea is the technical term for the problem, which is the inability to shut up. Now, mild versions of this afflict various professions including politicians. Hacks used to be warned, if they were going to encounter one particular minister, not to ask him how he was, because the answer might take 45 minutes.

The kind of logorrhoea for which a gadget is required is much rarer and more serious than that kind of rabbiting on. For starters, it is associated with clever, rather than stupid, people. 

People who are expert and interesting and great talkers — for the first 20 minutes. The second 20 minutes turns the attentive appreciative smile on the listener’s face into a rictus of disbelief, and the third 20 minutes has the listener looking around for a heavy object, suitable for braining the speaker with.

Research by psychologists and others tends to explore the childhood factors causing logorrhoea, but is damn all use at shutting them up for their own good. I’ve tried hard with clever, willing sufferers and nothing has worked. Logorrhoea is a career-killer, a relationship-killer and a deadly killer of potential.

Since neither knowing its cause nor providing sufferers with exercises to alert them to what they’re doing works, what is needed is the equivalent of the sleepy trucker device — something that, once the speaker hits their fifth sentence, or perhaps when they reach 90 seconds of monologue, vibrates on their wrist or at their throat to tell them to shut up right now.

A country awash in electronics engineers should be able to invent this.

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