My Two Cents

What a communications workshop can teach you about writing

by Feb 6, 2012Craft

If you’ve had communications training, it won’t surprise you that there are similarities between public speaking and writing.

At a recent meeting of  Toastmasters, Louvain Chalmers, who has gobs of experience training and coaching public speakers and others who use the spoken word to convey information or to convince or motivate others, led a workshop on how to be an effective oral communicator.

Here are a few things she taught us, and the similarities I see with writers and writing:

  1. The main purpose of a speech is to get an idea across to the audience. The speaker first needs to get the attention of the audience and then keep it, while delivering his or her idea. The problem is that, even if the speaker gets the audience’s attention, the audience may not receive the idea accurately.
    Of course, this is the same with written works – the main purpose is communication of ideas to your readers. You must get the attention of your reader and keep it (no easy feat). And you face the same problem as a speaker – the reader may not understand your idea accurately.
  2. Three of the primary obstacles that will interfere with accurate reception of a speaker’s idea by the audience are: the text of the speech itself, distractions created by the speaker, and the ideology or make-up of the audience.
    Three primary obstacles that interfere with a reader’s accurate understanding of a written work are: the work itself, things the writer does that hinder the reader, and the reader’s own make-up.
    You can control two of those obstacles (your text and distractions). The third – the ideology and make-up of the audience – is not something you may be able to control. However, you can take steps to lessen or manage its impact.
  • The text itself – a speaker must use vocabulary and expressions that are appropriate for both the topic and the audience; the speech must be clear, organized, and logical. In addition, the text must engage the audience, rather than make the audience start looking for the nearest exit.
    The writer (whether of a speech, essay or fiction) should use appropriate language and organize the content in a way that will ensure the audience or reader stays engaged and receives the message or idea accurately.
  • Distractions – public speakers do many things that distract an audience: their wardrobe may be out of sync with the topic or audience, they may use gestures that make the audience focus on them rather than the content of the speech, they may not connect with the audience, they may mumble, use jargon or have a monotone and boring delivery. By adopting behaviours designed to connect the speaker to the audience and by avoiding distracting behaviours, public speakers increase their chances of getting the attention of the audience (in a positive way) and holding on to it.
    Writers will increase their chances of winning the reader’s attention if they have a strong opening (this applies to both fiction and non-fiction), an interesting story and characters the reader cares about. There are numerable ways to increase your chances of holding the reader’s attention. I’d emphasize writing well and giving a damn about your product: proof-read, use correct grammar and spelling, and use consistent formatting.
  • Audience or reader make-up – if you are speaking to, or writing for, the converted, this obstacle won’t be much of a problem because the audience or reader will be with you from the get-go. That is, unless you botch up the standards or norms that the audience expects will be met.
    Let’s suppose, however, that your audience is one that needs convincing. This is something speechwriters and essayists encounter often. Here, it is the content of the speech or essay that must address the ideology of the audience. You may not be able to control who listens to the speech, or reads the essay, but by paying attention to who the audience is likely to be, or where your essay may be published, you can craft the content to reach that audience. In addition to researching your topic, you may need to research the probable make-up of your audience.
    A fiction writer is likely to write with a particular audience in mind (young adult, middle grade, crime fiction fans, science fiction aficionados, et cetera.) You can lessen the chances that you will lose your reader if you ensure that you learn the rules or guidelines applicable to the specific genre and write within them. Again, do advance research and save yourself grief.

One other similarity between public speaking and writing occurs to me: your narrator or viewpoint character is a public speaker. Make sure that he or she grabs the attention of the audience and keeps it. Make sure that he or she doesn’t act in a way that will make your audience leave the room early.

I know there are a myriad of things we writers do, or don’t do, that break the connection between the written work and the reader. Any favourites you want to share, I’d be glad to hear. The comments box is waiting for you!

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