What the Oscars can tell us about speaking

I attended an Oscar party this year.  On the evening of the television show, we all arrived at the hosts’ house and were given an Oscar ballot as we walked in.  Each of us marked off our predicted winner for each of the many awards to be given.  While this could be used as a wagering tool, we simply used it to help sustain interest during the long show.  “Yes!  Best black-and-white short documentary in a foreign language!  I have five points now!”  As I marked my ballot, I noticed that there are many awards for acting and many for writing.  This is not a particularly astute observation.  I am sure you noticed this as well.  What may have escaped your notice is how profoundly this distinction should impact the way we understand and teach speaking.

Someone creates the words.  Someone delivers the words.  These are two distinct talents.  The writer is probably not a great performer.  The performer is not likely to be a great writer.  But all speaking involves these two very different parts.  Whether we are speaking one-on-one, in a small group, or to a large audience, both parts are involved.  And for all us regular folks, we have to master both parts by ourselves.

Understanding the distinction between creating and delivering is the first step in becoming effective teachers of oral communication.  I refer to these two parts as building a speech and performing a speech.   “Building” refers to everything we do before we open our mouths; “performing” refers to everything we do as we are speaking. 

Let’s think about building a speech first.  Sometimes the process is instantaneous—coming up with what to yell at the umpire after a bad call.  Sometimes we work hard to construct our comments—deciding what to say at the eulogy.  But before we speak, we do certain things.  If we are to be effective, we think about the audience and design our talk specifically for them; we come up with content; we organize our words; we may design some aids for the talk; and we adjust our appearance to fit the situation.  Again, we do this for all verbal communication, whether our audience is one person (interview), a few people (discussion), or many people (presentation), but we often do these things without giving them all as much thought as we should.  Some people are very good at building speeches (professional speechwriters exist, right?) and some students will excel at this part of oral communication.  All students, though, and indeed, all speakers, need to understand what is required before we ever utter a word.

Of course it makes no difference how well remarks are constructed if they are never spoken.  I prefer to use the word performance rather than the word delivery because I think the former does a better job of conveying what is really involved.  In any event, as we speak, we need to do certain things.  We need to be poised; we need voices that make it possible for every word to be heard; we need some life in our voices to avoid being dull and boring; we need to make eye contact with audience members; we need to gesture; and we need to pay attention to speed and pacing.   If we do those things, we will be effective conveying the message no matter what the situation is—interview, discussion, or presentation.  Some people are very good at performing (professional speakers exist, right?) and some students excel at this part of oral communication.  But, again, all students need to understand what is required as they speak.

I realize that there are many ways to describe the skills I refer to here.  We have buried our students with an impressive number of descriptors: content, subject knowledge, information, appropriate facts, the 5 Ws, clear message, articulation, enunciation, elocution, speak clearly, intonation, expression, inflection, enthusiasm, and so on.  I will make an argument for consistency and simplicity another day.  Whatever language you use, clearly separate the words that describe what we do before we speak from the words that describe what we do as we speak.

I sometimes get a “Well, duh” reaction when I explain this, as if everyone already knows this.  At some intuitive level, I think we all do know this but look around your building.  How many teachers specifically talk to students about this crucial distinction?  How many score sheets and rubrics are being used in your building that don’t keep these separate (e.g., “Content, vocabulary, and delivery are appropriate”)?  How many students can articulate, “Well, I’m pretty good at constructing a talk but not so good at giving it” or vice versa?  If we all know this, why do I see so little evidence of it?

The distinction between building a speech and performing a speech is profound, and understanding that distinction will make a profound difference in the way students and teachers approach all oral communication.  It is the starting place for mastering speaking.

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