The key to giving good directions might be all in the word order you choose.
When a the speaker opens with a noticeable landmark – "See the bronze sculpture of Luiz Guzman over there?"– and closes with the destination or object of interest – "The post office is right next to it" – listeners are quicker to comprehend the directions than when the word order is reversed, according to new research.
The children's book "Where's Waldo?" was critical to the discovery. Study participants were shown one of the visually dizzying images from the books and asked to explain how to find the striped-shirted hero as quickly as possible.
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When the participants mentioned a nearby landmark first, listeners needed less time to find Waldo than those who heard his name first.
Interestingly, however, how the landmark looked changed the order in which people mentioned it. When the landmark was in sharp contrast with the background, participants were more likely to put it first in the sentence. Less prominent landmarks were more likely to be mentioned at the end of the sentence.
"Listeners start processing the directions before they're finished, so it's good to give them a head start by pointing them towards something they can find quickly, such as a landmark," coauthor and linguistics professor at Ohio State University, Micha Elsner, said in a release.
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It's a finding that will help both humans and computers give better directions.
"A long-term goal is to build a computer direction-giver that could automatically detect objects of interest in the scene and select the landmarks that would work best for human listeners," lead author Alasdair Clarke concluded in the release.