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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Learn To Speak Well: Is Their Any Alternatives

Most people think a decent standard of competence in speaking to a group is part of the basic professionalism of any job; but too many professionals are nervous about speaking, and afraid that they do not speak well. The basic premise of this book, as I have said, is that such a decent standard can be learned, and this confidence is based on many years of experience in training people to speak. A first stage in building up the confidence to speak is to think about the job of speaking, what tools you will use, and what effects you aim to achieve. Language is the basic tool, and language is a mysterious phenomenon. Consider, for a moment, the basic skills in communicating that everyone possesses. Language is used by all human beings; we use it copiously and without second thought every day of our lives. Indeed, our ability and confidence in manipulating language is a central part of the personality we present to those around us. But there is nothing unalterable about these abilities.

Because language skills grew without conscious thought we imagine that our level of competence in the use of language is something unalterable. If we are hesitant, slow, unimaginative, and pedestrian we fear that this situation is foredoomed, that we cannot change what we are. But our language skills are not what we are. Because we negotiate most of our interactions with the outside world through language these skills may appear to others to represent all that we are, and we often allow ourselves to believe their view of us. But we should not. Language skills can be modified and improved by repeating the same processes we first used to acquire them. We learned our language by listening to others, and imitating what they did. We can improve our command of it in the same way; by listening to research findings and advice based on them, imitating techniques which we observe to work, and thinking.

Many people argue that speaking well is no more than the application of common sense. But in this blog the results of research in psychology and linguistics are used to support advice on effective techniques. By doing this, I aim to help the speaker become more aware of the complex interactions between speaker, message and audience. The application of thought to any activity requires us to understand it first.The common sense school will reject all such ideas on the grounds that they are either obvious, or incomprehensible. Such a Luddite approach should be foreign to an engineer or scientist, but surprisingly it is often people who apply rational thought in their jobs, who consider language skills to be in the realm of witchcraft.

I am not unaware of the fears that this approach may evoke. And I am certainly aware that not all research is useful, comprehensible, or relevant. I am not about to bombard you with a textbook of academic psychology. It is certainly true, for instance, that all too often the so-called ‘discoveries’ of the human sciences are rather obvious. One investigator warns his readers that:

Occasionally we make discoveries which fail to set the world alight with surprise and admiration. One of the more profound insights we have achieved since 1945 has been the realization that man speaks. He also listens to speech. Some men read and write as well.

But just because some research confirms the obvious, it should not necessarily be ignored. It is surprising how often speakers fail to use common sense, and surprising how often the obvious has to be repeated when training people to speak. I argue that we should pay attention to the objective, scientific, evidence about how people speak, and how they affect the audience. I agree we should avoid that excessive faith in laboratory responses which George Miller calls ‘psycholatry’. We should strike a balance between ignorance of research, and pseudoscientific over-respect for jargon. Our aim, we should not forget, is to speak better: it is not to become armchair psychologists, nor is it to give up the task as a hopeless case, to which no rules apply, and in which no knowledge can help.

So far I have discussed the role of research findings in developing practical skills as if research on people’s behavior is always a bland confirmation of familiar patterns. But sometimes the results are unexpected. The most interesting and useful results of psychological research are often the ones which are ‘counter-intuitive, that is to say surprising and quite unexpected.’ A well-known worker on social psychology, Michael Argyle, reminds us that his subject is:

full of surprises because many of the research findings could not have been anticipated by a thoughtful person sitting in an armchair and analyzing what happens when people meet.

By talking about these interactions more precisely than is common, I hope to make the speaker perform better. But this can only be done if we bring into consciousness skills which are usually unconscious. Many people fear that this will make them lose spontaneity and become painfully self-conscious. But that does not seem to happen. The increased consciousness of what we are doing is usually not noticed by others, while the improved skills most certainly are. Everyone who has been involved in training social and performance skills agrees that thinking about these skills improves them.

If the first premise of this blog, then, is that speaking skills can be improved by thinking about them, the second one is that psychology and linguistics have much to teach us. I must be careful, though, that the blog is not regarded as a manual for experts, or that I am regarded as a super-speaker who does not understand the fears of the ordinary trembling mortal. I am not. Nisbet suggests that in speaking, as in other things, there are:

three levels of proficiency: the provisional license holder, the ordinary road user and the rally driver. The first is learning the rules; the second has everyday skills, and some bad habits; the third can break many of the elementary rules—a dangerous style, but a delight to the connoisseur.

I am aiming to help the ordinary road user. I am not a rally driver myself, and have usually come a cropper when I have tried to be one. It is the decent standard of ordinary competence in speaking that this blog aims at.