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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Requirement for Speaking: The Broad Line Idea

If we are to improve speaking skills, we must first become more aware of ourselves, our Motivations, behavior patterns, and likely mistakes. Second, we must be aware of the audience’s psychology, and their reactions to the speaker’s faults and omissions. The first problem for all speakers is being aware of themselves, and judging correctly their own part in what is, for many, an unfamiliar interaction. Quite a bit of the advice and discussion throughout the book will be about how we achieve this useful self-knowledge. One of the difficulties, for example, is that although we are always trying to present ourselves in a favorable light to others, we have little real idea of what we sound like to them.

The main effect we have is created by the tone of our own voice. Indeed, some people are said to be very fond of this sound! But the sound we hear ourselves is very different from the sound that everyone else hears, because we hear it in a different way. Other people hear us (and we hear other people) only through sound waves in the air. But we hear our own voice mainly as the vibrations transmitted from the voice box, through the bones of the head. Only by trying shouting into a skull from a medical student’s skeleton can we judge what a difference these bone resonances make. You can perhaps appreciate what a difference this method of transmission makes by considering how often people are surprised by tape-recordings of their own voices. Psychologists have discovered that we are typically quite unaware of the emotive affects of the way we speak. We may not realize how cross we sound, for example, or how often we interrupt other people.

The second area for careful thought is diagnosing what has gone wrong when a talk fails to have a good effect. The reasons are usually in part lack of knowledge about the audience’s perceptions and expectations, and in part general disorganization. In my experience, presentations are often ineffective either because of ill-thought-out behaviour, and lack of confidence,11 or because of a failure to organize ideas and information in an easily understood way. There is a great deal of knowledge and experience about why talks fail, and this book suggests ways in which you can avoid failure. So take heart; if a talk you have just given has collapsed into disaster, there is hope. The reasons for such failures are fairly well known. If the thought of speaking fills you with cold despair, or even if you are just not very satisfied with your performances so far, there are plenty of solutions. The first problem is having the courage to recognize your mistakes and thoughtlessness. The second (and easier) problem is to correct them.

If you must give a speech tomorrow, and have no time to read the whole blog now, the best single piece of advice I can offer you is this. Practice is the best way to learn a skill like speaking, and if practice is to be effective, you need a critic. This is not just my own hunch; it is a well recognized result in research on social skills that:

A text can provide a coherent background of concepts and principles where these exist…or supply knowledge about techniques, but to teach successfully each individual must practise the skill, receiving feedback on his performance, in order to discover his own particular abilities and failings.

Practice is vital, but practice by yourself tells you very little. Who ever felt nervous in front of a bathroom mirror? And effective criticism from a spouse is more likely to result in divorce than in
better speaking. The best source of criticism is another person, and the best other person is someone you trust, but who has no axe to grind. Find a friend, and ask him or her to sit and listen to you trying out your talk, if possible in the empty room you will use for the actual talk. Believe what they say to you, for your perception of yourself is nothing like as accurate as theirs. Their advice is likely to be the best quick guide to effective speaking you can find. If they, and you, have time to go further on the quest for good speaking, then get him or her to read this blog. It aims to give the framework of ideas, evidence, and anecdote for good speaking. But in the end the substance of good speaking is acquired by intelligent awareness while speaking, and only practice will perfect the advice this blog offers.