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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Organization of Material: Important Part of Preparation For Speaking

An early decision you must make when preparing a talk, is how are you going to organize the material. Read through the notes you have gathered, selecting what is most useful, and considering the best arrangement. No talk which is nothing but detail from beginning to end will have much permanent effect; nor will a talk which appears to make only one point. Research shows quite clearly that the listeners remember better, and remember more, if they have a sense of the shape of the talk. Any subject can be broken up into separate points. Even if your talk is about one chemical reaction, say, you can break it down into an overview, the raw materials, the theory of the process, the construction of the reactor vessels, the control and supervision of the reaction, the discharge and customer delivery problems, and a general summary of the process. In this way, one subject becomes several points. The listeners must be able to grasp the structure of the talk: make sure that you make the overall pattern of your presentation plain to the audience.

The only way to make a pattern plain is to make it bold. Since a grasp of the pattern is so important to a satisfactory sense of understanding, the best technique is to make each individual section, as well as the overall pattern, simple, logical and clear. Most speakers fail to realize just how strong and stark this pattern must be. They forget how much contrast is needed to make the picture stand out. Because they are familiar with it themselves, they do not realize that the audience, not quite awake anyway, may find a new subject confusing.

I heard one talk which had been a confusing drone of detail: but when asked the speaker insisted that his notes were clearly structured into five different sections. He had simply failed to make it clear to the listeners when he was moving from section to section. It was clear enough to him—he had his notes in front of him. But the audience couldn’t see the notes, and were mystified every time the subject seemed to have changed without warning. It is almost impossible to make the structure too clear: the listeners need to grasp the shape, pattern, or structure of the talk so that they have a framework to hang all the details on. Unless they perceive this structure, they will be left with a mass of shapeless details. The job of the speaker is to make the framework clear. It is difficult to overdo that job.

The choice of pattern is the next important decision to be made in preparing the talk. Ask yourself whether the arrangement of information you have chosen has a discernible pattern. If so, is that pattern suitable for the type of audience, the type of talk, and the subject matter (in that order)? Most important, will the audience perceive that pattern? It is very difficult to understand, when we have seen a pattern ourselves, that others may not be able to see it. Yet there is evidence that seeing a pattern is something which is learned, not something inevitable. For example, when the Pygmies in the Congo jungles were first shown black and white photographs they could see nothing but an abstract pattern of black and white blobs. They had to learn to perceive this flat, apparently random sheet of blobs and smears as an image which imitated the real three dimensional world. Your audience may be like the Pygmies in their understanding of the pattern of organization in your presentation. Make sure that you explain the structure of the talk, so that lack of familiarity will not make the listeners see your talk as a random maze.

Psychologists have done much research on how we perceive patterns, and what sort of patterns are most easily understood by human minds. It is worth pausing for a few pages, to look at this work, because it illustrates very clearly what the speaker must do if he or she wants his audience to understand. I have chosen four topics in the perception of patterns to start you thinking about the kind of organization a talk needs. The first of these is Gestalt psychology, the second is the importance of our sense of place, the third is the significance of patterns of seven elements, and the fourth is the way we chunk details to make them easier to understand and remember.

The first topic I want to explore is the theories of the Gestalt psychologists. A group of early experimental psychologists working in Germany, the Gestalt psychologists, showed in a series of elegant experiments that human beings naturally see patterns in the objects around them. This tendency was universal, and was a powerful element in human understanding of reality. We grasped the mass of detail in the real world, only by seeing it as part of a pattern. The Gestalt psychologists formulated laws for the type of patterns which were most easily perceived by the human mind. It is wise to follow these rules in the construction of a pattern of organization, because they define what will be seen as a pattern, and what will be seen as a jumble. Max Wertheimer suggested five laws— similarity, proximity, closure, good continuation and membership character—which the mind used to impose order through pattern.

Obviously, patterns can be most easily made from things which are similar, and close together. Five trees of the same kind, standing in a group on the sky line, will always be seen as a pattern. So will three blue cars of the same make next to each other in a car park. And so will the three advantages of several different kinds of software, when balanced against the three disadvantages of each kind. Closure, and good continuation are more technical ideas. Human beings want things to be complete, and we will often make the completion ourselves if it doesn’t exist in reality.

A drawing of a circle which has a gap in it will be seen, and remembered, as a complete circle. Similarly, if the talk about software only mentioned two disadvantages in the third of the types, most people in the audience will remember three disadvantages for each type. They will even invent the missing disadvantage, or transfer it from another type, to make a complete pattern of disadvantages. Good continuation is a similar requirement in patterns. If a line is continuous, we can see it as a pattern more easily than if it has large, random gaps. Usually, we fill in these gaps ourselves. Thus the line in the middle of the road is seen as a line, even though it is half bare asphalt surface, and half short white dashes.

Finally, membership character means that it is easier to perceive a pattern if the objects all seem to belong to the same group. Thus it will be easier to remember a group of points if they all belong to the same topic. A talk about five important engineering principles in bridge design, with one section on the power output of modern engines, would fail on this principle. Most of the audience would perceive the section on engines as a digression; they would remember only the five principles, and probably also remember that there were some red herrings in the talk. If, however, the talk had been presented as six principles of engineering, applied to metal structures, such as bridges, engines, and steel framing, it would have been grasped as a pattern.

The results of Gestalt psychology are widely accepted. The ideas can be applied to ensure that the organization of a talk has a pattern which is easy to grasp. If the structure of the talk fits in comfortably with the natural way the human mind grasps patterns, it will be better understood and better remembered. Try to use the principles in laying out your talk using similar sections, clearly part of the same topic, and all related to and continuous with each other.