The battle for audience attention

A general view shows Court One during the opening of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in London, October 16, 2009. REUTERS/Gareth Fuller/Pool

History is being made today with the televising of court of appeal proceedings.

And about time too is my reaction, because the prohibition on video and tape-recording in courts once stood in the way of my attempts to study court-room language. American colleagues had no problem in assembling large collections of tape-recorded hearings - and were generous enough to supply us with copies - on which, more HERE.

My interest in working out what turned jurors on and off led me to start recording political speeches and to focus on bursts of applause - as clapping was fairly concrete evidence that listeners were not only awake but also approved of what had just been said. This led to publication of a book that was to take my life in a different direction - and, later on to books aimed at showing people how to use what we had learnt about the main techniques in their own speeches and presentations.

So, to mark the day when I ought to be thinking about collecting video-tapes of court of appeal proceedings (but probably won't), I thought I'd post the beginnings of what became of some of the original research when applied to speaker-audience interaction more generally - from Lend Me Your Ears, Chapter 2...

The Battle for Audience Attention
Keeping Listeners Awake and Engaged

Most of us find it easy enough to discuss aspects of our life or work with one or two colleagues, friends, or even with complete strangers. But it’s a very different story when it comes to standingup and talking about the same subjects to an audience. Confident communicators suddenly find themselves crippled by nerves, the normally articulate sound muddled and confused, and enthusiasts for their subjects come across as dull, boring and monotonous. You will almost certainly have seen this happen. It may even have happened to you – but you may not be quite sure exactly why
it happens.

This difference in our level of confidence and effectiveness, depending on whether we’re speaking in a conversation or to an audience, is so great and so debilitating for so many people that it demands an explanation. The chapters in Part I set out to provide an answer by showing that there is what amounts to a ‘language of public speaking’. Less complicated and much easier to learn than a foreign language, it involves subtle deviations from everyday speech that can make life difficult for anyone who isn’t fully
aware of them. Knowing what these deviations are is an essential
first step towards understanding and mastering the techniques of
effective speech-making.

Different ways of speaking
Speaking in public is obviously different from just about any other form of communication we ever get involved in. The sense of unease experienced when making a speech or presentation tends to be accompanied by a vague realisation that our normal, everyday style of speaking doesn’t seem to be working in quite the way we expect. Speaking to an audience seems to require skills otherthan those that serve us so well during the rest of our talking lives. The trouble is that it’s not always immediately obvious what these are, or why our normal resources are failing us. This is why we can find ourselves, often good communicators in every other way, struggling and bewildered against the tide of polite indifference washing over us from an audience who would clearly rather be somewhere else.

One reason for this is that our ability to speak is something that we have taken for granted since infancy. Speaking to an audience requires different skills from those that serve us so well during the rest of our talking lives.  The trouble is that it is not immediately obvious what these are, let alone why our normal resources are failing us.

Apart from academic researchers who specialise in the study of talk, hardly anyone ever gives much thought to the detailed mechanics of how speech works. Most people’s technical understanding of conversation is similar to their technical understanding of what’s involved in riding a bicycle. Both are things we can do, without so much as a second thought, but the basic principles of how to do them are far from easy to put into words.

An ability to use language is often cited as the crucial factor distinguishing humans from other animals. But it is probably more accurate to say that the crucial factor is an ability to converse – and it’s more than mere ability. As conversationalists we are absolute experts. We listen, we understand, we contribute, all within fractions of a second. And we’re able to do this because
we start learning to converse from the moment we make our first sounds.

The type of speech we first learn as infants is conversation. As we grow older, it is the speaking skills of conversation that we spend most time practising and developing. In effect, we become specialists in conversational techniques, and it’s as conversationalists that we spend the vast majority of our talking lives. Only very occasionally do we have to speak in ways that are clearly different from conversation, such as in classrooms, courtrooms, places of worship, interviews, meetings, debates, speeches or presentations. As narrow specialists in conversation, it’s hardly surprising that we feel so uneasy when we have to speak in these less familiar situations. Nor is it surprising that the few who do develop these more specialised speaking skills – such as teachers, lawyers, politicians or clerics – come to be viewed as (and paid as) professionals....(to be continued).

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