Monday, February 07, 2011

Orality and Clarity

I often have to make oral presentations. Recently I was asked how I have developed my presentation skills—why I don't seem to be nervous, etc. Well, I am of course nervous before I make a presentation. I must also sometimes seem nervous, but I think what my band teacher, Mr. Orr, told us back in grade seven holds true. Before a concert, you don't just have butterflies in your stomach, you have 747s there. Now, the trick is not to get rid of them; the trick is to get them to fly in formation. The nerves we have before performing are an important source of energy.

What does that have to do with writing? Well, one of the things I say about making an effective presentation is that, in the end, it's all about knowing what you will say. I don't think it is helpful to imagine that our "rhetoric" can be distinguished from our "message". Organize your presentation around the message you want to communicate. Make sure that what you are saying can be understood by your audience. With that in place, your rhetorical problems are at least possible to solve. So, when asked how I have developed my oral presentation skills, I say that I write a lot. In particular, I believe that my training with this blog, where I write for an hour every other morning and then immediately make the results public, have taught me how to shape my ideas in a confident way. It has taught me how to get my butterflies to fly in formation.

Now, many writers have trouble speaking in public. Writing big books does not necessarily make you a good speaker. You have to write in a clear, plain style if you hope to use your writing to train to your oral style. You have to write in a way that resembles speech. You don't want there to be a big disconnect between how you say things on paper and how you say them in person. Fortunately, such writing is also much easier to read, and much more likely to get published. So you are really just learning how to write well, and this is giving you the added benefit of speaking clearly.

I try not to acknowledge self-criticism that doesn't get to the heart of a problem. So, when someone says they have great ideas but are unable to express them, whether in writing or otherwise, I try to get them to question the premise that their ideas are great. Truly great ideas are easy to communicate. Am I saying that you should work on your ideas and the words will follow? No, work on your words as a way of working on your ideas. Then your words will always be up to the task of expressing your ideas. And—which amounts to the same thing—your ideas will always be articulate enough to be expressed in a variety of media. The poorly written really is the poorly thought.

At a practical level, use paragraphs as a way to shape your thinking. To see what this means, consider this post. It consists of five paragraphs, including this one, which is supposed to round things off, summarize, reach a conclusion, bring it all together. Each of the previous paragraphs had a single message, which developed as I wrote, but which I will now go back and identify, probably editing each paragraph a little as I go to bring out that point more clearly. The points are the following: The trick to doing oral presentations is to get the butterflies to fly in formation. Use writing to train your butterflies to this end. This will have the added benefit of clarifying your writing. The poorly said or written is the poorly thought. Finally, this paragraph says that paragraphs can help you organize your thinking around individual claims, and it supports this point by identifying those claims in the post. It supports by exemplifying. Notice that although I talk a lot about myself in the post, none of the key points are about me. The narrative frame about how I learned to do presentations from grade seven onwards is just a conceit. It gives me a way of supporting the point of each paragraph with prose.

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In other news, you don't get a more unambiguous recommendation than this. Thanks, Matt! It's great to know this blogging is helping people out there.


matt said...

Thomas, I'm happy to say that the post about the happy writer has been especially important for me and my writing group as we meet weekly to discuss the progress of our dissertation prospectuses.

The idea of research as its own language (or discourse community as we so often say in the world of English composition), has also been a recurring revelation to me as I think about doing the work of a scholar!

Thanks for the great insights and for sharing your own ideas with the blogosphere.

Thomas said...

It's heartening also to hear that you've got a weekly writing group. It's the simple things that work.

Jonathan said...

Try not to write anything that you would never say. That maxim in itself would eliminate a lot of writing problems. Arrive at an understandable, conversational style--then adjust if you need it slightly more formal.