A little while ago, a colleague mentioned she had a pair of Bubble O’Bill earrings which always spark conversations. For me, this comment did two things:
Firstly, it started my own obsession with stand-out earrings, and secondly, it led to an epiphany about more and better communication for clients through the use of signature items as a talking point.
What is a signature item?
A signature item is an accessory or style which a person becomes known for. Signature items can be:
- the same all the time – think Steve Jobs’ black skivvy, or Anna Wintour’s oversized sunglasses; or
- a variation on a theme – such as Jerry Seinfield’s sneakers or Dame Edna’s outrageous glasses.
How can you use a signature item for communication?
Signature items can make great talking points for you and your clients – and for clients when they are out and about in the community. The trick to it is for the item to be ‘same-same but different’, and not just immediately recognisable.
Helping our clients to find a way to ‘wear’ their personality and interests on the outside can have a surprising number of benefits for both clients and others in the community. Here are just a few:
- A signature item can create a simple way for people in the community to have a topic to talk about with clients. The item gives both a topic and context. It makes two-way conversation easier, enables dysarthric speech to be easier to understand (due to there being context), and acts as a prompt for memory impairments (oh how I LOVE contextual communication).
- A signature item also gives people in the community a reason to keep up a conversation and engage regularly with a client. The signature item provides the opportunity to open a conversation and build social connections. Brief interactions with others in our community make all of us feel good and that we belong. If you want to read more on the benefits of brief social interactions for everyone’s wellbeing, check out this research article: ‘Minimal social interactions lead to belonging and positive affects‘.
- Having a signature item to talk about gives clients lots of opportunities for practice and repetition. In your sessions, you can prepare for conversations about the signature item and practice responses and comments. You can scaffold and practice scenarios before heading out. This includes thinking of ways to respond, extend and close conversations. The real-life chat about the signature item provides the repetition and reinforcement needed for mastery. The more acquaintances your clients meet out and about, the more practice they get in a real-life situation.
- In this type of conversation, the client becomes the expert. For people with communication difficulties or impairments, the balance of power lies with someone else pretty much ALL. THE. TIME. Helping our clients to be an expert in topics they love helps to reset the balance.
What could a signature item be?
A signature item can’t be completely manufactured to be effective for clients. It has to be something that has meaning to the client while also telling everyone else something about that person. Signature items could be:
- A favourite colour – displayed on a wheelchair, bag, shoes or hair ties
- A favourite sporting team – shown through a jersey or scarf
- Stand-out earrings – like my colleague’s fabulous Bubble O’Bill earrings
- Funny t-shirts
A signature item could also be a way of doing things, such as a chosen hair colour or haircut that becomes a recognisable feature of somebody’s personality and style.
Put it into practice
Consider the different personalities and styles of your clients. If you know a client with a distinct signature item, try out conversation starters related to their signature item with them first. They’ll probably need no prompting to talk about why they wear their favourite colour or t-shirt. The challenge might be finding ways to extend conversations so they are not repetitive or teaching techniques to end conversations with people in the community.
For clients with less obvious signature items, it might take a little investigating to find something that sums up their personality or that they are passionate about. Maybe think about your own signature item or style and begin modelling conversation and communication that way.
Since having this epiphany, I haven’t stopped noticing all the fabulous, unique and wonderful ways my friends, colleagues and clients express themselves through their clothing, accessories and styles.
My problem now is I can’t decide if I want signature stand-out earrings or a signature shoe obsession.