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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Speech Context Is Important

First, you should analyze the occasion. Decide what the purpose of the meeting is. What is the audience expecting to gain from being there? Are they hoping to make a decision, or are they there simply to keep an eye on progress? Is the talk of general interest, or is it to give new information about a specific process? Will the audience use the information immediately, and if so for what purpose? Many presentations are chiefly psychological in aim. The intention of the monthly branch meeting, for instance, is often to make sure that people come together at least once a month. It helps to give them a sense of corporate identity, and to encourage their loyalty and enthusiasm. Such a meeting may be a platform for news about the company, a place to set new sales targets, for giving information about progress in meeting these targets, and for news, about colleagues.

Another type of meeting is the symposium of a learned society. Here the purpose is probably to disseminate information and to encourage other workers. Listeners may pick up ideas which apply to their own work, or they may simply expand their general knowledge. Other groups may consist of a few research managers, one or two people from head office, and the speaker’s own immediate boss, who wants a new project explaining. It may need the approval of all the audience if the company is going to be persuaded to spend money on it.

There are as many purposes as there are meetings. It is naive to imagine that the purpose is often a single one. I doubt if many presentations are purely for general interest; or indeed if many of them are to sell one particular idea only. They will also be goodwill exercises for the company or department, career-building opportunities for the speaker, and general back-patting, congratulatory sessions for the group. What people will do as a result of the talk is as diverse as their reasons for being present. Some will go back to their offices and sign cheques or requisitions; some will merely forget the whole thing; some will find that in a conversation days later they have information unexpectedly relevant to what is being discussed. The task of visualizing, quite specifically, why people are there is an important step in understanding the audience. Unless you can write down a statement of what the audience will actually do as a result of hearing your presentation, you have not really clarified the purpose of the meeting.

A next question to ask is whether the meeting is one of a series, or whether it was called to deal with the topic of the moment. Are there precedents for such a meeting? Does management ask for regular presentations on research topics? Are administrative bottlenecks always thrashed out in head-of-department meetings, with the responsible officer addressing the group? The attitudes and expectations of the audience will depend very much on what they are used to. Imagine yourself being asked to give a paper; your own knowledge of the precedents will help you to avoid obvious pitfalls. If your paper is to be given in one of a series of research colloquy, it will help to remember your impression of the other speakers you have heard. The audience will probably view you in the same way.

Perhaps the worst feature of the colleague you have attended so far has been the blind specialization of some of the speakers. They may have been wrapped up entirely in the fascination of their own techniques. The only bit of the last talk you enjoyed may have been, for instance, a short section on the translation of pure research ideas into commercial reality; the rest was irrelevant and therefore boring. From your own reaction to others, you have a model with which to design your own talk. Clearly, in the situation we are discussing, unless there are many people in the audience working on the same specialization, the speaker should keep discussion of the intricacies to a minimum. But information about the commercial hopes and pressures that fuel the research, and their effect on the direction of the work, could form a major section of the talk.

Let me take another example. Imagine a computer systems analyst, presenting technical (not specifically sales) information on a new product for a potential customer. His branch manager may also be in the audience, so it is a career opportunity as well as an information giving session, and obviously an occasion to impress the expertise and quality of his company’s professionalism. But if the presentation is one of a series given by every major computer manufacturer competing for the order, a shrewd guess at the line taken by other speakers will help greatly. To repeat the same claims, and offer the same facilities is useless. What is distinctive must be stressed.

Awareness of precedent is essential for a successful presentation. Most talks fit into a familiar context; they form part of a pattern, and the audience’s expectations are formed by this pattern. All communication depends on contrast with its context, and language operates by using the contrast between different sounds to signify meaning. For example, the difference between ‘red’ and ‘led’ lies only in the first letter. Orientals find the contrast between these sounds difficult to perceive, usually, and without it meaning is lost. Equally, unless there is a contrast between the communication medium and the context it is received in, no meaning can be transmitted.

A language which consisted of a series of humming tones might work well in the quiet plains of Mongolia where we can imagine it originating. It would be useless in a modern factory filled with machinery. Contrast between elements in a language, and between the language and its context is essential. In the same way, yet another paper read in a droning monotone in a conference filled with monotonous papers will not communicate. It will be ignored and forgotten. In considering the precedents for your presentation build on the contrasts that will make it stand out.