a perfectly formed oral communication performance – part 1.

I first became aware of the tension that exists between the written and the oral form; between presentations or pubic speaking and oral communication, while attending a conference at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

I sat in the audience waiting with an intellectual eagerness. Here I was, one year into my post graduate research degree and about to hear from one of philosophy’s great thinkers; a Harvard University graduate, a doctoral student in the field of analytical philosophy and logic. A complex topic in any language. 

I had read his work. I found his ideas interesting and accessible (in a written form) and was keen to see what he would do with his intimate knowledge face to face. How would he play with the ideas intellectually when delivering them orally to me; standing there in front of the audience what would he say that would provide us with the opportunity to think our own thoughts about his ideas and arguments; how was he going to encourage intellectual innovation (imagination)?

He is a prolific writer1 a prolificacy in English2 as well as Chinese.

I had been rummaging around in the library at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia one weekend and came across an interesting article he had written in 19923 about comparative management styles in Western and in Chinese culture. His interests were broad; a breadth that in my mind made him potentially light on his feet (intellectually). He intimately knew his topic and could very competently communicate complex ideas in a written form (creatively). I naively thought this would or should translate into competently communicating (complex) ideas orally (in an oral form). 

Sadly this was not the case.

This American professor did what so many people do when they stand to speak, he introduced us to his notes. Perhaps not obviously like some, where they actually wave them as they approach the lectern or notes, as some do, carefully transcribed onto ‘cards’ which would be more useful shuffled than read. I could clearly see that he was clutching a set of well used notes as he headed for that dire4 prop, the podium5 and the dreaded lectern6 And this pop-up7 theatrical performance playing out in front of us was the best part. What followed was disappointing.

I sensed he was reading his notes, if not literally then certainly what he was saying was determined by their content; by what he had written down some time much earlier.

Why could he not communicate the ideas orally in the same meaningful way he could communicate them in writing?

The problem was his relationship with the original material: a relationship which in this particular case had been determined (or shaped) by the means8 of delivery. He was trapped in the written form and was unable to extricate9 himself from this relationship when he stood-up to speak. He had originally written about the ideas and had difficulty changing this relationship and delivering them orally. He had failed to translate the ideas he had originally selected for the written form into an oral version.

Oral communication or communicating ideas orally is very different from communicating ideas in writing.

My argument is 1) Ideas being communicated orally must be shaped – gathered and arranged for the oral form if they are to be communicated successfully. 2) Storying10 is the process of shaping ideas specifically for communicating orally.

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  1. He has authored and edited 21 books and over 250 articles in Western, Chinese, and comparative philosophy. Department of Philosophy, University of Hawai’i website.
  2. Wikipedia, ‘Recently he has specifically worked on the philosophy of c-management and Confucian Bio-Ethics as they relate to the Chinese tradition, and on how Chinese culture relates to world culture.  ‘c’ being Chinese or comparative as both would fit into his argument.
  3. Chung-ying, Cheng. 1992. “The ‘C’ Theory: A Chinese Philosophical Approach to Management and Decision Making.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 19, 125-153
  4. dire – adjective. 1. Dreadful, calamitous, terrible; ominous; colloq. urgent, desperate. Milton All monstrous, all prodigious things.. Gorgons and Hydra’s and Chimera’s dire. C. Bronte Forced by dire necessity. 2. Very bad, awful; unpleasant. B. Pym The dire state of fiction publishing. E. O’Neill I didn’t say anything so dire. did I.
  5. podium – noun. Pl. I. 1. A raised platform surrounding the arena in an ancient amphitheatre. 3. A raised platform or dais at the front of a hall or stage; spec one occupied by the conductor of an orchestra. M20.
  6. lectern – noun. A stand or desk usu. with a sloping top or front that can hold an open book, notes, etc., from which a person can read; (a) one in a church for use by a lector, cantor, or preacher; (b) one for a lecturer’s notes.
  7. pop-up – temporary
  8. means – ‘the means by which’; the way in which something is delivered.
  9. extricate – verb trans. 2. Get (a person) out of a difficulty, entanglement, etc.; remove, usu. with difficulty or dexterity, from what physically holds or contains someone or something.
  10. storying – † storying. to tell [or utter]as a story [archaic] The Shorter Oxford Dictionary – emphasis added

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