See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Tag Archives: forensics

What is Owed (CiS Part II)

I want to start by apologizing to everyone who checked in last week looking for new posts and was disappointed. I’m still recovering from my somewhat sudden vacation to Orlando, Florida and the attendant 36 hours of driving back and forth, but that isn’t much of an excuse. This doubly true since this, the next part of Communication is Service, focuses on the primary duties of a service oriented communicator: that of not wasting the audience’s time. So once again, I am sorry, specifically for wasting your time.

Let’s get back to basics for a moment, because there is a lot of room for confusion here. Communication is service, and the best way to measure whether or not words coming out of someone’s mouth is a service is to see if it is wasting the audience’s time.1 Take for example a teacher giving a lecture in English, but the entire class speaks only Spanish (further assume that this is not some sort of ESL immersion technique). However justified the teacher feels in yammering on, if the student’s can’t understand, they might as well be playing kickball. Their time is being wasted, the teacher is not serving the students, so the teacher is failing as a communicator. Saying that the communicator has an obligation not to waste the audience’s time is not the same thing as giving the audience what they want – the teacher doesn’t serve the audience by giving the student’s infinite recess and easy As – but its pretty close.

I begin with this obligation as a preliminary expectoration2 as you’ve already heard a lot of nonsense about what the primary obligations of various communicators are. It’s usually a variation on “our job is to speak the truth” (the capital T is occasionally implied as well) with some nuances, like “to lead” or “to educate” or “to call it like I see it” or some other seemingly noble calling. Well, that’s dead wrong. In the third season of the West Wing, Aaron Sorkin spoke through a fictional poet, saying

You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don’t get to decide what truth is.3

To put it another way Sorkin has no right to capture his audience and force them to serve as Sorkin’s dummies as he blathers on about truth. If he manages it great, but that’s just this side of a happy accident. This isn’t to say that truth-telling can’t be a valuable service – it is to say that the communicator must captivate first. In practical terms, I tell forensics students and competitors they have to first answer two questions for the audience, every time. “What are you talking about, and why should I care?” It is the obligation of the communicator to convince the audience care – not the other way around. And what does the communicator get in exchange for humbling themselves into servitude?

Nothing. The audience owes you nothing above and beyond what they owe any other person for your attempt – and I stress, attempt – at communication. You’re here to help the audience, not for them to help you. That means no whining about your audience looking at their phones,4 not being well-educated enough to understand you, or too selfish to care. Be captivating enough that they will pay attention, be clear enough that they don’t have to hack through a thicket of SAT prep books to understand you, do what it takes to make them care.

So, to review: Communication is a form of service. The first duty when serving your audience is not to waste their time. In exchange for you not wasting their time, they owe you nothing. Once you’ve got that mindset, we can start to talk about the mechanics of effective communication.

Footnotes

Communication is Service (part I of an ongoing series)

Last weekend I had the privilege of judging at the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association (MIFA) Individual Events State Finals in Kalamazoo. Judging forensics – the public speaking kind, not the dead bodies kind,1 is one of my very favorite things to do in the world, and its a great way to spend a Saturday.

On one level, forensics matters the same way that any extracurricular activity matters: it can build character, provide enrichment activities, and help kids get into college. More importantly, public speaking, whether formal persuasive address with your own words or artistic interpretation of someone else’s writing is a skill2. Public speaking also happens to be an important skill. I knew plenty of very bright people who have difficulty expressing opinion or thought because they’ve never had the training and confidence building from speech activities, debate, or something similar. So being part of that, even if involves getting up at the crack-o-dawn, writing critiques sheets until my hand hurts, and then agonizing over the fifth and sixth places in a six person round, its probably one of the most meaningful things I get to do in my life.

Forensics has also permanently damaged my standards. I came out of Forensics a half decent public speaker, but considerably below the curve of the top ranked kids, and I was not infrequently the strongest public speaker in any given room of college, sometimes professors and special speaking guests inclusive. I figured that’d settle by the time I reached law school, but again, the aggregate lawyer is a surprisingly mediocre public speaker (there are of course some talented litigators who can blow the doors off brick buildings) so with all sincerity, routinely seeing high school kids that are superior stronger public speakers than people who professionally speak in public is disorienting.

I’ve been wondering about why it is that these kids are so good, other than the absolute wringer of competition, coaching, adjudication and practice, practice, practice they’re sent through, and it was my weekly nag e-mail from WordPress that really clarified it for me. WordPress has a little feature where, upon request, a some e-mailing robot will remind you as frequently as every week to post something. The email goes something like this:

Express yourself. (And meet your goal!)
Howdy!

Great job meeting your posting goal last week. This is just a friendly reminder to write this week’s post. Keep up the great work!

Looking for inspiration? Here are some great posts by bloggers just like you:

This is an innocuous little e-mail that is totally wrong. I am not here to express myself, and no blog worth reading is about self-expression. If you want to express yourself, write in a diary or just wail into a pillow. No no, what we’re interested in doing here is communicating, and when you’re truly interested in communicating, the bottom line matters most. It isn’t about what you say, but about knowing what you want them to hear, and finding away to bridge the gap between your mouth and their comprehension. A friend in the Michigan forensics community is fond of saying that forensics is about teaching kids to “stand up and be heard” an expression I love, but if we’re being totally precise forensics is about teaching kids to “stand up and be listened to”.3 Good communication requires the communicator to have, however temporarily, a service orientation, because it isn’t about the speaker but about the audience. Everything we teach these kids is about helping them help the audience.

The high school kids may or may not understand the necessity of a service orientation on an abstract level,4 or be interested in the nuances of word definition, but they’ve had the lesson (proverbially!) beaten into them over and over again by coaches and judges that they have an ends-oriented task as represented by the laundry list of things to do better and score ranks on the little slips of paper they take home each Saturday. I don’t think most adults have access to that sort of thing, and when you’ve got enough talent, skill, and good luck… well, its pretty easy to have ego trample over any service orientation you can muster.

I’m going to be hitting on these theme quite a bit in the coming weeks and months in a series I’m entitling “Communication is Service.” We’ve long needed a(n inter)national conversation on discourse. I’m definitely not the most qualified person to lead it, but we all should be taking part in it, and this is how it has to happen, when each one of us understands that it is not only a right to stand up and be heard, but a service we have a duty to perform for others.

Footnotes