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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Signposting All The Way- Important For A Good Speech

When a speaker conduct his speaking infront of a group of audience, he/she need to communicate the message that he/she likes to do. And for this communication of message, speaker need to generate audience attention into the speech and more over he/she need to sustain that attention throughout the speech. Without audience's attention, it is very difficult for the speaker to communicate their ideas with their audience. And in absence of audience's attention, speaker become failure to have an effective communication. Now, to sustain the attention of audience into the speech, speaker can do something which is much familiar as Signposting.

The idea of ‘signposting’ originated with Tolman in 1951. The idea was that people become mentally disorientated by new information, and need to find their bearings. On an intellectual journey, signposts which point the way, and help to locate ideas, help people to understand. Tolman also speaks of a ‘placing-need’ which makes people want to have a map in their minds into which they can place the new information. Within that perceptual field clear orientating references and signposts are needed if the listener is to absorb information comfortably.

Once the opening stages of the talk are over, and the audience have been told where they are going, it is important to continue to signpost throughout the talk. This is done by announcing the topic, giving a heading, or listing keywords every time you start a new section of the talk. These can be written up on a board, flip chart or overhead projector. You should also give one or two sentences at the beginning of each section which act as an overview of the section. After developing the section, explaining and clarifying the point, giving examples, and discussing them, you should then come back to a sentence or two of summary and conclusion. Some signal is then needed to alert the audience to the fact that a new topic is about to start. Writing the new heading up, which requires you to change position, and pause while writing, is undoubtedly the best technique. But shifting position, allowing a significant pause, or even a change in the tone of voice is better than nothing.

The next section of the talk should start in the same way, with a sentence or two of definition, followed by explanation, examples, and clarification. As the talk progresses, you should also stop and take stock frequently, collecting together what has been said so far, summarizing the overall plan of the talk, and showing how what has been said so far leads on to the next point. Make cumulative summaries as you go through the talk. Each time you change topic and move onto a new subject, summarize in a sentence or two what you have said so far, refer to the map of the structure of the talk, and then announce the new heading. It seems easy and obvious, but many speakers do these things so quietly that no-one notices. The audience wake up from a day-dream to discover that the topic has changed while they were away.

So clear and repeated signposting is needed, if the talk is to be effective. Within each section, you should give the general picture at the beginning, and not launch into the body of the topic until you have given them an overview both of the topic itself, and of the way you are going to treat it. The effect of this is that within the overall structure each sub-element should have its own structure. Donald Bligh suggests that each point should be a version of the ‘general form’ of ‘making a point’ He lists these moves as follows:
  1. Concise statement
  2. Use the Board
  3. Re-expression
  4. Feedback
  5. Recapitulation and restatement
  6. Elaboration
  • More detail
  • Illustration
  • Explanations
  • Relate to other points
  • Examples
A structure of this kind within each section will help to make the progress of the talk easier to understand and clearer. One of the difficulties that a speaker faces is that there is no lay out code in speech, such as the indentations and blank spaces which are used in written material to make the structure clear. The speaker must supply all these props to understanding with his voice. This is why it is especially important to emphasize the change of topic using as many different techniques as possible. Imagine a book in which the chapter headings were all set in the same size type as the rest of the page, and had no white space around them. If there were no paragraph breaks either, the text would be impossibly difficult to read. There would be a dense blur of information, with no visible shape or structure. Yet this is what happens in most talks. The paragraph breaks, and the white space round the headings must be provided by the speaker’s tone of voice. Even if he emphasizes the change of topic, some of the audience may be day-dreaming at that moment, and miss the change. But if you write the new topic on the board, or flip chart, then when listeners return from their intermittent day-dreams they can see that a new topic has started. It is like leaving a message for an absent person to collect when he returns.

The absence of a layout code also means that listeners can’t scan the page to see the shape of the information, or to look up a point which has gone by. Listening, unlike reading, gives the audience no opportunity to pause, rest and go back over material, at will. Once spoken, the information has gone. So the speaker has a much greater need for clear and simple structure in his information than the writer. The speaker must also be careful not to make mistakes; they can never be unsaid. And the listener must recognize that information lost is never recovered.

There are two more rules which must be added to the overall advice on how to glue together your points to make them clear, structuring a presentation. Firstly, there should be clear explaining links to connect point to point. Secondly, each individual point should follow the ‘rule-example-rule’ principle, where a brief statement of the fact, idea, or point, is followed by an example or illustration, and then that fact, idea or point is repeated. A simple phrase, at most a sentence, will do for the first statement. Any amount of illustration can reinforce this, depending on the importance and complexity of the point, and a summary restatement should follow.

One final piece of advice; it is often very helpful to be quite open and honest about things you find difficult to explain. By taking your listeners into your confidence, you will enlist their interest in the solution to the problem of how to explain the point. You will also make them feel that their difficulty in understanding is not because you are a bad explainer, but because the point itself is complicated. You align yourself with them, and make the point itself the enemy. They are then more sympathetic, more aware, and in trying to help you, will accelerate their own understanding.

Signposting For Longer Speech

A longer presentation (one which lasts more than ten minutes) demands a long span of uninterrupted attention from the audience, and therefore needs more skill in the structuring of the talk. Ten minutes may seem a short period, but as I have said earlier, audiences find it difficult to listen for long without taking little breaks for daydreams. So longer talks need more organizing, more linking, and more reminders. They have a greater overhead of time which must be devoted to housekeeping activities, like keeping tabs on where the talk has got to, and keeping the structure fresh in the audience’s mind.

Signposting in a longer talk becomes more important. The speaker must provide a thread to help the audience to find their way through the maze. He or she must remember how limited any listener’s span of attention is, and offer regular directions for the lost travellers. The basic rule is that the receiver of the message always needs more explanation than the speaker thinks he does, because he is not as familiar with the material.

In a longer talk some technique must be found to interrupt the monologue with a different activity every five or ten minutes. Break up long stretches of time by strategically timed visual aids. An alternative is to schedule occasional brief periods of discussion to provide relief. The audience are stretching their legs mentally, if they are given a chance to talk themselves. The discussion period doesn’t need to be long; a few minutes relaxed talking as a group will help the listeners approach the next section of the talk feeling refreshed. If the speaker breaks up a long talk, and provides variety in this way, the audience will experience it as several short talks rather than one long one.

All this advice on how to reduce the burden of listening by breaking up a long period into shorter ones is not based on laziness. Psychological research gives clear evidence that shorter sessions improve learning. The early work on memory showed the importance of rest periods. Hermann Ebbinghaus, for example showed that the efficiency of learning improved when he included short periods of rest between learning sessions. At first he was surprised by this, since he expected periods of rest to cause people to forget some of what they had just learned, and so reduce the overall amount of learning. But he realized that the reminiscence effect was causing learning to improve. The conclusion from the experiments was that both primacy and recency increase the efficiency of a learning session which is punctuated by breaks. A single session benefits from primacy and recency only at the beginning and the end. But if the learning task is broken into several shorter sessions, with breaks in between, there are more occasions when the primacy and recency effects can assist learning.

It seems that the memory, like some muscles, tires easily, but recovers quickly. Ebbinghaus’s results showed quite clearly that the benefit of a break increased as the length of the break increased up to a maximum of ten minutes. After that, lengthening the break to a quarter or half an hour made no difference. The result has been confirmed by many subsequent researchers. This is why most effective courses and conferences schedule ten minute breaks every hour or so. It is also why a presentation which lasts more than ten minutes needs to have built in variety, and breaks of various kinds, so that the listeners can recover their mental energy. The key to an effective talk is variety, whether the talk is long or short. And the key to an effective longer talk is to break it down by whatever means available into a sequence of shorter sessions. If you spend time devising ways of breaking up the long session, you will be rewarded by an alert and attentive audience.