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July 13, 2007

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Machine Readable

For my own future reference:

QR codes are a way to turn text information (including vCards) into a two-dimensional pattern. Anything with a camera and the right software (read: cell phones, PDAs, computers) can decode that information back into text, URL, or metadata form. If it's got a decent screen, it could even encode it for another device. The codes are common in Japan, but several manufacturers (including Microsoft and Nokia) have made moves towards more widespread usage.

I'm interested in this because it blurs the line between print and digital in a very cheap and easy-to-create way, and I see my career headed in that direction. Clearly, print's not going anywhere, but a lot of people right now are looking at scenarios to integrate it with online information in a smart way. Cell phones are becoming smarter, and as they do they're a natural vector for information, but it's almost always a pain to get information into them, whether you're using T9 or a soft keyboard. And why type when you can have it read the URL for you?

So a magazine might be able to link articles from print to online in very little space, so that anyone with a smartphone can explore related materials. Music publications could link to sound samples. And I can put a QR-encoded vCard onto my business card, and then someone can add me to their phone or Outlook contacts just by taking a picture of it.

And these are just what first comes to mind. I need to think about this for a while.

June 14, 2007

Filed under: journalism»communication

Forensic Evidence: The Index

These posts are summaries of the lessons I learned while studying public speaking on the GMU Forensics team. They have proven helpful to me, and I hope they'll be helpful for you, too.

Filed under: journalism»communication

Forensic Evidence: Miscellany

Now we're getting picky.

Walking Points

There are three good reasons to physically move from one place to another during a speech. First, it shakes up the audience a little, gives them slightly different scenery to watch, and engages their twitch-motion reflex if you've lost their attention. Second, it establishes physical locations that act as a mnemonic for your points, and makes them easier to remember. Finally, it gives the speech a more dynamic presence, and gets you out from behind a podium.

For a three point speech, there's an acknowledged method in forensics for walking the points, and since it works, I see no reason to change it. Basically,

you start in the middle of the room,

walk a few feet to one side for the first point

come back to the middle for the second,

give your third point from the other side,

and finally return to the starting point to conclude the speech.

In high school, I learned a three-dimensional "christmas tree" pattern for walking, but I had to unlearn it in college. Staying on a single plane is less contrived for the audience, and it requires less adaptation in small spaces.

This isn't very hard. It takes a little bit of practice to remember to move at the relevant time in the speech, but it soon becomes second nature. The real trick is to make it seem natural--like you moved as a part of your expression, and not because someone told you to jerk into motion at that point in your speech. Practice is crucial, but so is technique. Here's one way to do it: as you finish one section and during the first sentence of the next, gesture toward the direction of your movement with the hand on the same side as that movement. Using that gesture to lead through, take your first step with the foot on the same side (i.e., when moving to the right, step with the right foot). If you step with the other foot, you'll have to cross yourself up from a standing position, which both looks awkward and closes your body to the audience. By using the leading gesture and the corresponding foot, you maintain an open posture to listeners. With practice, this becomes a smooth, casual motion, and stops looking premeditated, especially if you move while speaking instead of snapping into motion between sentences.

Memory

So with the exception of hiding behind the podium, there's not much that gets more in the way of speaking to an audience (as compared to at them) than reading from notes. Everything else in delivery--eye contact, walking, vocal rhythm--it's all shot if the speaker keeps looking down at a piece of paper, losing their place, or talking to the desk.

There are many ways to memorize, and I'm not going to claim that this will work for everyone. But when I had a speech written that had to be delivered at 9am the next day, here's how I went about committing it to memory.

Starting from the top, I read through the entire speech, one sentence at a time. I would make sure that I had that sentence correct, then move on to the next. At least several times, I would repeat not just the current sentence, but also the one before it. This builds a connection between the two--I might not be able to skip ahead three sentences, but I could automatically repeat what came next. At the end of each paragraph, I practiced going through the whole paragraph. At the end of each section, I tried to get through it in its entirety before moving on. The entire process is meant to connect the speech together in sequences of sentences.

It worked for me. Obviously, this process is much, much easier if you've written it yourself, because the words will come naturally to you.

Speaking in front of a camera

I don't have a ton of experience with this (if I remember correctly, commenter "thatfuzzybastard" is a film editor, who might have better advice), but I do know that speaking in front of a camera does change some aspects of the equation, and I've seen some of these issues come up while in the Multimedia Center studios. In my defense if I get something hideously wrong, I'm relying on Hausman, O'Donnell, and Benoit's Announcing: Broadcast Communicating Today, 4th Edition, which was published in 2000.

As far as clothing goes, don't wear red on camera. This may be out of date, especially as cameras have improved (and HD becomes more common), but I was always told that CCDs can react poorly to red, and it can make you look like a fire engine.

Also, try not to wear patterns. It will turn into a moire when the camera downsamples it, and it's distracting. This is less important at higher resolutions--but remember that not everyone shoots in HD, and nowadays not everyone produces for even standard definition. We had someone come in for a shoot wearing a patterned tie once for a web video. It moire'd in the original DV-CAM, and then the Real codec turned it into a fireworks display. Suddenly no-one had any idea what he was saying, because they were too hypnotized by the magical Time Tunnel on his chest.

You can ask the cameraperson or interviewer whether or not they want you to look at the camera. We usually ask people not to do so, and I end up sitting next to the camera to give them a point of reference. But wherever you're supposed to look, pick a spot and stick with it. If your eyes move around too much, or if they meet the camera sometimes and other times don't, you'll look shifty. And nobody likes that.

And from an editor's perspective, make it easy on them and you will probably be rewarded. Points that are made in a simple, direct--and above all, short--way are more likely to be picked as soundbites. It is a shame, in many ways, that soundbites have become so common. But having worked on a few projects here, we are almost always way long on time for our video productions, and have to cut back dramatically. The editors love people who can be trimmed without losing as much substance.

May 22, 2007

Filed under: journalism»communication

Forensic Evidence: Basic Delivery

In the interests of space (avoiding monster posts like the previous speechwriting harangue), I've decided to break delivery into two topics, basic and advanced. Many people won't actually need the techniques I'm putting in "advanced," like walking points, because they give most of their presentations from a single place or podium anyway. I discourage that practice, but I also discourage use of Powerpoint and clip art. Let's see how far that gets me.

If writing for speech is all about respecting the constraints of realtime communication, delivery is all about power--and if ever a statement deserved to be qualified, that one does. There's nothing overtly sinister about it: I don't necessarily mean that the speaker is in a position of power (although they may very well be) or fighting against power (equally likely), and I'm not trying to say that the speaker seeks to dominate the audience. But as we'll see, the basics of speech delivery often rely on tricks that either evoke positions of power or are common to those in power. It's not hard to see why: probably 99% of the time, a speaker is trying to project authority and trustworthiness to the audience, in order to effectively communicate the message. Not every delivery lesson is tied to this goal, but many--most?--of them are.

Let's take a few areas of good delivery one at a time:

Facial Expression

I kid you not, if there's one thing that I tell everyone coming into the studio, it's that they need to smile. You can hear a smile in a person's voice. The physical change--even one that's completely faked--creates an emotional change. It doesn't just work for smiles, actually. Matching your expression to your subject matter almost always produces a noticeable improvement in delivery, but since most people who go for "profound" end up at "bored," you're best off smiling when in any doubt.

Note: do not smile for most speeches about violence against women, inhuman slum conditions, or starvation. Sometimes it's better to sound bored than "happy to be here." I have learned this from experience.

The other important expressive element on the face is the eye. We attribute a great deal of nonsense to eyes, in my opinion. They are not windows to the soul, but they are extremely important non-verbal communicators, and we have a lot of circuitry built into our heads for interpreting their movement. Much of this has evolved in close conversation, where we look to another person's eyes to read their attention level, their reactions to new information, and (of course) their power relationship with us.

Like many of the power relationships being expressed here, these are culturally-specific, and I wouldn't want you to think otherwise. In most Western cultures, a direct gaze is considered important for being trustworthy, whereas in other cultures it may be challenging or even hostile. You'll note that either way, there is a power gradient being expressed. What I will say about eyes, as well as other non-verbal communication, should be evaluated in a Western cultural environment only and may in fact be counterproductive in an intercultural setting.

With that said, the role of the eyes in public speaking is to establish contact without being overbearing. You need to make each listener feel included in the message, but not intimidate them. In order to make this happen, your eyes should meet directly with everyone in the room at regular intervals. Obviously for very large crowds, you'll just have to look in the direction of a group of people, but the principle still stands. I recommend that you maintain that gaze as if you were speaking directly to the target audience member for the length of a short sentence (or in long sentences, for the length of one of its clauses). Finish the sentence (or clause), and move your eyes smoothly to the a new person in the room as you start the next words. You will need to practice this, but in time it becomes very natural.

Gestures

Make an invisible line across your chest at around your armpits. Now make another line at your belt or waistline. Look at the space between them--this is where your hands live for gesturing. When they are not actively communicating, they should hang naturally at your sides. These are mostly aesthetic considerations: big gestures or overactive gestures will make you look spastic. Depending on your frame, you may also want to be careful with how far out from your body you move your arms--when I first started speaking, I tended to reach out in a very exaggerated fashion, and it made me look like a scarecrow.

The role of gestures in interpersonal rhetoric should be to accentuate and illustrate points. For example, when using an internal preview (I said that it'd be relevant later!), each point should get a its own location in space, indicated by a gesture that "places" them or indicates them. This helps the audience understand that there are three separate points and mentally associate them with a physical process for better retention. You may also want to associate movements with particularly important points, or to walk the listener through a process.

DO NOT ATTEMPT TO PRECISELY MIME AN ACTION AS PART OF A SPEECH. It never ends well. If you can't do it in words, use a printed visual aid.

Gestures actually play very well into the power dynamic of public speaking. Making small gestures, for example, is a long-standing trait of many tyrannical administrators, since it forces their subordinates to pay attention to the slightest move. You shouldn't go to that extreme, but keeping your body under control with clearly-defined and limited movements is a sign of confidence and authority. Some gestures also signify power in greater or lesser degrees. For example, gesturing upward or toward the body with hands in a cupping motion is like a plea for help. It's considered a weak gesture. Pointing is another weak gesture--it looks accusatory (and a bit like the vaunted finger-guns). Spread fingers come across as conciliatory or defensive.

You're better off with gestures that move down or out, with the hands in a natural, relaxed position (all fingers out, but fairly close together). It's almost like a very mild karate chop. The movement should have a definite end, hold for a second, and then relax back to your sides. Above all, nowhere is it more important to tape yourself than when it comes to gestures. It is hard to explain these kinds of things in text--but when you see yourself making mistakes, you'll cringe and then you'll fix it. Self-recording is the answer for a number of speaking sins, but particularly here. Webcams are cheap. Take advantage of it.

Voice

If the most common advice I give to people in the studio is to smile, the second most common is that they need to slow down. Nervous people speak faster, and they won't even notice. They may even feel like they're dragging through the text, because the adrenaline in their system has them hopped up so much.

So you probably need to slow down. Technically, you should be speaking at about 120 words per minute, which is easy enough to test: grab a random 120 words from a newspaper or magazine article, stand up in front of some friends, and time how long it takes to read from start to finish. Speaking slowly accomplishes a couple of purposes. First, it ensures that the audience can follow you easily. Second, it's another sign of your authority: high-status individuals are allowed to manipulate the time of lower-status individuals, which is why VIPs are often notoriously late or dismissive of schedules. Take your time and claim that credibility from the room.

Now there are many vocal styles for public speaking. They not only vary from person to person, but from venue to venue. Jesse Jackson's oratory-from-the-pulpit approach stands in sharp contrast to Bill Clinton's one-on-one lovefest, but both are capable of adjusting to a wide range of situations and audiences. They are making a connection with the audience. I would propose that the easiest way for most people to make that connection is to speak to an audience the same way that you would speak to a single person. Make it conversational.

If you've been practicing your eye contact, you may find that this comes naturally. Each sentence should not only be directed with a smile and a direct gaze to that person, but you should talk to that person. Live the sentence as you speak it, as if it wasn't written hours or days before, but as if it's something that you really want that individual to know, between friends. Because to be honest, isn't that the point? You want your message to get out. You want the audience to trust you. So speak to them as your friends, not as if you're the great speaker and they are a passive listening body. Keep it conversational.

Still to come

Good thing I split it up: Pico says I'm up to 175 lines already here. Here's what I'd like to talk about next time: using the physical space of a room, memorizing speeches, and speaking on camera. In the interests of conversation, feel free to ask questions and debate points in the comments for this post, and I'll do my best to respond.

May 21, 2007

Filed under: journalism»ethics»online

Direct from the Dark of the Basement

When reading the pundits on the editorial page or watching them on the news channels, do you ever find yourself asking: "Who do these people think they are? What qualifies them to speak in front of all of us?"

I do. All the time. And it's not just the looming prospects of job-hunting behind that thought. About a month ago, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait wrote an article criticizing the liberal blog community for being insufficiently concerned with the truth, to which (of course) every leftist on the Internet responded by asking "so who was pro-Iraq War, again?" Lance Mannion also drew attention today to a few writers who continue to trade in the idea that bloggers and writers online are all just delusional losers in their basements, whose rantings are only marginally more coherent than the average sandwhich-board-wearing lunatic.

Who do these people think they are? the writers and pundits ask, not realizing that we've been asking the same thing in return.

But here's the dirty secret for pundits and journalists and movie critics who stand aghast at those angry bloggers: their job is not special. And they know it.

I'm not a blog triumphalist. I don't think wikis will save the world. But the simple fact of the matter is that there's no particular training to become a journalist, or a pundit, or a movie critic. There's no reason to believe that these jobs can't be done as well as anyone--and indeed, once upon a time, they were. There's a reason that movies like His Girl Friday depict journalists as a bunch of slovenly, low-class opportunists: they used to be a bunch of slovenly, low-class opportunists.

Nowadays, if you can find a journalist amid all the cutbacks at major newspapers and media outlets, there seems to be this idea that journalism has become a higher profession. The attitude betrayed by Chait and others is that these writers are better than the public somehow--better informed, better read, and probably better-looking. They're more public than the public, if you believe the hype behind David Broder. It's even infected relatively niche journalism, which is the only way that you could possibly find people like Gregg Easterbrook masquerading as "science writers."

There's nothing wrong with being an unspecialized journalist (Chait's employment history, for example, is a collection of writing credits but no direct political experience). Plenty of people have done it before. Hunter S. Thompson, one of the great heroes to the profession, started working as a news writer because it let him supplement his army wages. The honest truth is that most journalism, for all its mystique and prestige, amounts to picking up the phone and calling people for information. Occasionally, it requires the reporter to get up and actually go somewhere. This is not brain surgery. And obviously, punditry is even less rigorous--got an opinion? You're good to go.

The implication of writers like Chait, or Brian Williams (who commented recently that he didn't like competing against some guy named Vinny in a bathrobe somewhere) is that they've got something we don't. And indeed, they do: you don't get to be a staff writer for TNR or an anchor for a major news network without a lot of connections and a lot of luck. But self-publishing means that now any dog on the Internet could potentially oustrip their audience, while a lot of us have started to think that those tightly-knit political connections are what's wrong with the media in the first place. And frankly, as news has been cut back in the profit-driven environment, I don't think very much of the argument that they have some kind of journalistic integrity that no-one else can claim.

It astonishes me to read pieces by media professionals that trumpet their ignorance of the blog network. They're missing out, and they're missing the point. Bloggers may just be parasites on the journalists who go out and gather the days events--but there are an awful lot of people who get paid to do the same thing, except in print. An editorial page is just a blog without the links (or in some cases, the readership). In many ways, it's a classic irony of economics--the jobs of the "knowledge workers" can now be outsourced, and they don't even have to leave the country--or get paid.

In other words: Who are these people? And why should we care?

* * *

In the best tradition of a post that quotes from Lance Mannion, a fine writer known for saving his recommended links for the end of his posts, I really do recommend his writings about credentialism and the media.

May 17, 2007

Filed under: journalism»communication

Forensic Evidence: Writing for Speech

Writing something to be read aloud is much different from writing for print--just ask the average commencement speaker. There are many places where they coincide, as many great writers also read well (Douglas Adams, rest in peace, comes to mind as someone who probably wrote better dialog than actual fiction). But after watching some people at work struggle through writing for speech, I think that it's a definite stumbling block.

As with all aspects of public speaking (and really, with most skills), one of the best ways to improve the writing side is to practice it. Write a lot, and as you write, read it aloud. You'll pick up on a lot of the following points yourself as you do, and you'll start to get a feel for the kinds of phrases that look stupid on paper but sound great or vice versa.

Why is writing for speech different from print writing? Let's look at the audience and the environment. Writing on a page is static, and the audience can interact with it at leisure. They can look up words they don't understand, and they can jump back through the clauses of complex sentences until they piece together the whole meaning. There's much less interference between the reader and the symbols on the page, existing in a black-on-white, high-contrast medium.

In contrast, spoken presentations take place in realtime. They can't be paused, and the viewer can't go back if they didn't understand something. Environmental noise and distractions can detract from comprehension. On the other hand, a good presenter can be far more captivating than text, and has the advantage of a number of non-verbal and pan-verbal cues.

So far, this is pretty basic stuff. But believe it or not, this is where I see most people tripping up, because they don't take into account the difference between realtime and static. That difference informs a great deal of the art of public speaking--from structure to gestures to sentence complexity. It is all about making sure that the audience a) is not lost, and b) if lost, can easily pick up the thread again. Once we understand that theoretical shift to realtime communication, we can start putting it into concrete practice.

Start by writing shorter sentences. This is hard for a lot of people to do, because they are in love with commas and parentheticals. I love subordinate clauses myself. It's also been hard in B-SPAN work for the podcasts and video blogs, because VIPs may have absurdly long titles. By the time you finish the title, a listener might have forgotten the preceding part of the sentence. A good rule of thumb should be that an audience member can always repeat the last sentence back to you verbatim without any prompting. And don't forget to make it something that you can repeat in the first place--alliteration and elaborate metaphors may look good on paper, but they're tongue-twisters up in front of all those eyes. I promise you, the time that you spend trying to untangle ambitious phrasing after a stumble will seem like the longest moments of your life. Keep things simple for your audience's sake and for your own.

Next, don't forget to introduce with an attention-getting device--also known in most circles as a snappy introduction. This is a good tip for most writing, but it's especially important for speech to grab someone's attention. It will also flatter your audience if you can weave it throughout the rest of the piece, just with occassional references. They'll feel clever, and that will incline them to pay attention.

The other key to working with the realtime constraints of public speaking is to pay close attention to structure--and that means more than just putting together an outline when writing, because most good writers will do that anyway, but specifically you need to signpost and make it explicit to your listeners so they can find out where you are. There's nothing worse than watching a speech where the structure is badly explained or nonexistent, because it will usually come across as rambling. If nothing else, listeners want to know how soon you're going to stop talking, for a variety of reasons.

First, let's go over some basics for putting an argument together in the first place. In competitive speech, which has a 10-minute time limit, the most common way of structuring a speech was generally referred to as 3.2. That means that the overall outline had three main points, each of which had two sub-points. Forensics dorks stick to this religiously, even when they shouldn't--I still catch myself laying out my freelance work this way. The real number of points and sub-points isn't really important, although I think people have trouble following if either one gets too numerous.

For the purposes of this discussion, though, let's use 3.2 as a good starting point. I actually think there's a lot of rhetorical strength to this structure (particularly compared to the other forensics stalwart, 2.2 structure). For one thing, Western culture tends to be very receptive to the number three. We're unconsciously primed for it, from three little pigs to the old formulation of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. It tends to resonate with an audience, and it's easy to put together a number of easy-to-remember outline points for your speech:

  • 1. Past, 2. Present, 3. Future
  • 1. Problem, 2. Causes, 3. Solutions
  • 1. Narrative, 2. Plot, 3. Story
  • 1. Explanation, 2. Implications, 3. Applications
  • 1. Apples, 2. Oranges, 3. Fruit Salad
The latter is a little joke of mine, as many forensic speakers reduce this structure to "here's one interesting item (apples), here's a seemingly unrelated point (oranges), and here's how we can resolve the conflict (fruit salad)." Regardless, you see my point: although a three-point structure isn't a strict requirement, I highly recommend it.

Each of those points then gets two sub-points (the ".2" of 3.2 structure). So, for example, if I were giving a speech on dangerous electrical wiring, my first point might be to talk about the causes of faulty home wiring. My first sub-point would be how most older homes are designed for a much lower load than our modern appliances demand. My second sub-point might talk about the now-obselete fad of using aluminum for home wiring, which proves highly flammable at contact points. In doing so, I've broken down my main point into a series of smaller subjects so the audience can follow me through them. You don't have to have only two--you might have many more--but two points is a nice number for someone to maintain mentally under their map of the three main points. It's also easy to gesture to them, as I'll discuss under delivery.

But either way, once you've worked all these points out and added an introduction and conclusion, you've got yourself a structure. Now you just have to communicate it to your audience. You can do that through internal previews. Basically, you're going to take every possible opportunity to rermind the audience of where you are, what you just finished, and where you're going. It will help them follow you, as well as giving them a mental layout of your argument so that they'll remember it later.

The way I was taught to do internal previews, and I think it works well, is to place them at the end of the introduction (for the main points), at the start of each main point (for the sub-points), again at the end of each main point (to review the sub-points and preview the next main point), and before the conclusion (refresh the audience's memory of the overall structure before driving your argument home). It sounds repetitive. It looks repetitive on the page. But trust me, if you do this for your audience, they will thank you.

Let me show, rather than tell, now. Here's the intro and previews from my most successful Forensics speech (a persuasive number that really was about home wiring):

Denny Morgenstern was impressed, to say the least. After all, it's not every day that an electrical meter is blown clear off the wall of a lakeside house because of poor wiring. Yet the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of July 29, 2001 states that when Morgenstern, a master electrician in the area, arrived on the scene, he wasn't the least bit surprised. "I'm in places all the time that are real hazards," he said. Thanks to a lack of regulation and sheer age, Morgenstern's seen more dangerous electrical work than most of us have seen light bulbs.

According to the National Electric Safety Foundation web site, last updated March 11, 2002, faulty or aging electrical wiring causes more than 40 thousand house fires each year, taking more than 350 lives. Even worse, faulty wiring isn't just a problem on Green Acres any more: instead, the aging of American homes is turning it into an epidemic that's wired for fire. If you live in a dorm, cheap student housing, or a low-rent neighborhood because the pay in education is just on this side of abysmal... pay attention, as we first flip the switch on the problems of aging electrical work, then curse in the dark at the causes, and finally fumble for the circuit breakers to turn on the solutions.

The problem with this wiring crisis can be summed up simply: it burns your house down. Apart from that surprise, the problem is rooted in two key areas: older houses, and improperly wired systems.

[...explanation of the problem...]

Now it's true that these firetrap electrical systems are partly caused by age, but that's not the whole story. The causes also include rising electrical demand, and widespread public ignorance.

[...explanation of the causes...]

So the solution is bound to be expensive, right? After all, electricians aren't known for their charity work or low, low prices. Luckily, keeping older houses electrically safe isn't a serious drain on your pocketbook, as long as you take proper precautions and use some common sense.

[...explanation of the solutions...]

Denny Morgenstern doesn't see a lot of exploding electrical meters-and that's just fine by him. But the fire hazard from aging electrical systems makes him nervous enough, and it's a problem that more of us should be worried about. After seeing how older homes are wired for fire, and then seeing why this problem keeps blazing up, we can cool things off with some easy-but effective-solutions. As Morgenstern states, "those fires shouldn't happen." There's no way to predict what could happen, but home fires are among the easiest disasters to prevent.

I know, it's probably more than a little cheesy. That was kind of my shtick (still is, if you listen to the B-SPAN podcasts). Still, it works, and the use of a little cute wordplay makes it less egregiously blatant for the listener. You can even use these previews in written writing, and many do (particularly in academic papers), but they're essential for realtime speech.

As I was writing this, I realized that I'm not really qualified to teach anyone to write brilliantly. I'm proud of my writing, but that takes some serious hubris. But if I'm not prepared to instruct on stylistic brilliance, I am confident of the basics of rhetoric. These two main areas (simple sentences and previewed structure) are the foundation of good speechwriting. They'll rarely dazzle--only speech dorks will come up to you later and say "wow, I really loved your preview to the second point"--but they give you the rhetorical framework you need for the fireworks. As we'll see, these basics serve two roles: they not only provide redundancy for the fleeting speed of the spoken word, but they build room into your speech for the use of effective physical delivery. That's a post for another day.

May 16, 2007

Filed under: journalism»communication

Forensic Evidence: Why Speech?

I know some people might be thinking "Why should anyone write about public speaking online? More importantly, why should I read it? And where are my pants?" These are valid questions--where are your pants? Most people would probably rather watch Carrot Top gargle hedgehogs than spend time public speaking, and so they don't see the relevance. But the truth is that you can't get away from speech. It's still one of our most basic forms of communication, it's a huge cultural touchstone, and I'll argue that its skills translate into more than just corporate earnings reports and geeky undergraduate competitions.

If nothing else, learning to speak well makes you a better writer. Many good writers already speak well, so they don't initially see the connection. Yet as I will point out later, writing for the page and for the spoken word can be very different disciplines. But in general, the kinds of tricks that you learn when writing a good, easily-understood speech in terms of phrasing, structure, and audience appeal will serve you just as well in print. They'll certainly help with editing.

But consider this: as certain parts of our culture mutate in response to the Internet, one of the innovations in online style has been the use of punctuation and capitalization to mimic the rhythms of verbal conversation. Not that this is entirely new, since books and articles have been written in the vernacular before, but I think the casual tone of blogs and chat have helped to turn what used to be dialect showboating into actual conventions. See Heather Armstrong, AKA dooce:

Over the last few weeks several neighbors have stopped by to introduce themselves, and invariably they are older than we are, more established, and have careers in medicine or law. And when they ask what we do, both Jon and I sort of flinch and exchange a quick look that says IT'S YOUR TURN TO LIE.

Family gatherings are always SO. MUCH. FUN.

Armstrong isn't the only person to do this, but she's a good example and most people online have probably heard of her. The point is not that this is great writing, although I think dooce deserves a lot of credit. What I'm trying to point out is that as culture has moved online (and that means text-based, despite the hype around podcasts and video blogs), our use of that text is moving in a couple of different directions. One is that lazy IM-speak that causes despair among high school educators worldwide with its brb, lol, c u l8r nonsense. The other is a definite trend of casual communication, which I believe comes partially in response to the dry and impersonal nature of the medium. It is writing that evokes speech, hand in hand with the "conversation" of a good blog/comment system.

But even if you're not a writer and you don't want to be a writer (I sometimes forget that not everyone enjoys hitting the keyboard as much as I do), I think you might still find some of these tips useful. Good public speaking is as much about the rhetoric as it is about the delivery, and today we find ourselves surrounded by rhetoric--ads in everything, an accelerating presidential election, news coverage that's barely news or coverage. The best way to avoid being fooled is to learn how to do it yourself.

May 15, 2007

Filed under: journalism»communication

Forensic Evidence

The #1 fear of most Americans is public speaking. I know this through numerous public speaking courses--although now that I think about it, they may have had an agenda. If it's true, personally I think it says more about a lack of imagination on the part of the pollster than anything else. I can think of six or seven scarier things just off the top of my head. But I watch a lot of horror movies. If we rule out over-elaborate scenarios better suited for Saw IV (franchise motto: "We're Se7en for people who hate plot, or character, or movies."), public speaking probably does top the list of rational fears.

I never really had a problem with public speaking. While I was in college chasing down a degree in Communication, I spent two years on the Mason forensics team (not autopsy forensics, but speech forensics--the common term refers to a logical process of explanation). College forensics has two national-level tournaments per year. Although I didn't get very far my first year on the team, in my second I placed in the semifinals (top 12) for persuasive speaking at AFA Nationals and the quarterfinals (top 24) for extemporaneous and impromptu speaking at NFA Nationals. Like most opportunities in college, this probably sounds more impressive than it is. And it doesn't sound that impressive.

Regardless, one of the reasons that I started this blog was to add to the overall knowledge base of the Internet in some small way. I hope that people might be helped in some small way with their problems when they stumble onto Mile Zero--I got a lot of positive feedback for my tutorials on Electroplankton, for example, and (oddly enough) I get a steady trickle of trackbacks after interviewing and writing about the ucus.us script spammer. I'm always looking for something else to write about that way, but I'm young and not yet an expert in very many areas. A while back I had lunch with an old friend from the team, and I realized that maybe I could write up some of my experiences so that other people could benefit from them. As a typical comm student, I was always better at talking about how to do things than necessarily doing them. If I can help just a few people knock their top fear down a few notches, that can be my good deed for today. I also feel like I need to preserve my lessons learned from those experiences, before I forget them. I use many of these skills every day at my job, some more than others, and I think they are valuable to distribute.

So over the next couple of weeks I'm going to write a series of short takes on how to write for speech and present that writing effectively. These are not definitive--feel free to disagree--but I'll be trying to cover what I think are the essentials, and where I see most people trip up. My current plans are for four entries (writing for speech, structure, delivery, and improvisation), but I'm open to suggestions for others if anyone has any ideas, and I may uncover new topics as I go along.

March 8, 2007

Filed under: journalism»professional

In Sound, March 2007

I've added an excerpt of The Buzz, episode one, to the Audio section of my portfolio. I've been really busy on this the last couple of days, but everyone involved is very happy with how it turned out. I tweaked the intro music a little (the slap bass was overcompressed, I didn't like the synthesized horn section), and now you can hear it in context with narration, which makes a lot more sense.

January 26, 2007

Filed under: journalism»professional

But You're Not Helping

Remember that scene from Blade Runner, when they interview the worker to find out if he's a replicant? I have been in that interview.

Getting a good head start on the unemployment process, I've started sending out resumes. It's reassuring to get responses, even in the negative. The last time I did this, I wasn't important enough to even get a rejection letter half the time. For one recent application at a large quasi-journalistic organization, I had to visit their site and fill out about 500 multiple-choice personality and management questions, most of them banal ("Do you prefer a casual workplace?" "Do your coworkers know when you are upset?"). Only in the last step did I actually type in my name and detail my CV, which felt decidedly anticlimactic. A screen said that someone would contact me by e-mail if any further attention was needed.

A few days later, I got an automated e-mail from the organization, instructing me to call a number for a phone interview. Excited by the progress, I phoned them up at lunch and made an appointment for the next week.

"Now," said my impossibly-cheerful interviewer when she called, "I'm going to ask you a series of questions. I cannot explain any of these questions or elaborate on them in any way, although I can repeat them if necessary. Do you understand?"

I agreed, a little hesitant, at which point I was confronted with verbal versions of the same bland, pointless management questions as the web form. I could tell that it even had follow-up questions built-in, because if I started to elaborate on my answers, the voice on the phone would interrupt me.

"Could you explain why you answered that way?" she would bleat. Toward the end of the call, I began to try increasingly subtle segues on yes/no questions, just to see how far I could get before she broke in. It was odd: before the call, I had been seized by an irrational fear that I would begin answering questions with grotesque lies and resume inflation, and like the Southern accent that I sometimes find myself gently mimicking over phone conversations, I would be unable to stop. Now my biggest task on the interview was retaining a semblance of humanity when faced by a virtual automaton.

After the interview, my caller (I believe her name was something like Patty, or some other name that summons images of beehive hairdos and church-basement cassaroles) answered my question about the odd format with what sounded like another prepared spiel. They were trying not to bias the process, she said, and so they asked everyone exactly the same thing. My recorded conversation would be played for an analyst, and they would let me know within the week. Almost a week later, I got an e-mail saying that my skills were not a match, and thanks for my application.

Perhaps it's paranoid of me, but I've started to wonder if Patty or the analyst actually existed. It doesn't seem out of the question that a carefully-programmed answering service could have made that phone call. At any point, did real human beings see my application? And in a business that's based on communication, isn't it a little ridiculous that I could even ask?

Future - Present - Past