Make eye contact. Project your voice. Articulate clearly. Plan smooth transitions. Don’t read from notes.
For most of us connected in one way or another to teaching in higher education, these simple maxims are some of the unquestioned tenets of good public speaking. Personally, I have instructed my students to bear them closely in mind for the short presentations I typically have them do in my classes; bullet points with slight variations on the above permeate the documents we here at the Schwartz Institute distribute to students to prepare them for successful oral presentations and debates in their communication intensive classes. As someone who’s field of study (ethnomusicology) is largely premised on granting equal value to the musical systems of every culture (i.e. cultural relativism), and who believes that the disproportionate focus on the western classical tradition in our universities’ music departments is seriously problematic, I was surprised to find myself only recently reflecting on the implications of assuming the primacy of one particular style of oral communication.
Since the amazing diversity of human musical expression became evident to me only a few readings into the ethnomusicological canon, I have often found descriptions of heterogeneity in other communicative domains to be more striking. Take, for instance, the following depiction of public speaking style in the rural indigenous community of Conima, on the highland plateau of southern Peru, from Thomas Turino’s Moving Away from Silence:
A Conimeño [person from Conima] would not be comfortable on an elevated platform facing and conducting an orchestra, a classroom, or a meeting… speaking style is soft and indirect. People generally avoid eye contact during conversation, and when talking in groups, a speaker will look at the ground so as to address no one in particular and everyone at the same time.
The contrasts here to several of the postulates listed at the outset of this post are obvious. We further learn, though, that Conimeños would find foreign the very idea of a debate, which is the format that some fellows at the Institute are assigned to support.
The next example, drawn from an article by Steven Feld (“Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style”) on the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, speaks to an aesthetics of public speech that is ostensibly fostered by the dense soundscape of their surrounding rain forest:
The Western normative concepts of individual speaker turns, floor rights, and turn-taking etiquette, notions rationalized in both speech act philosophy and conversational analysis, are absent from, and analytically irrelevant to Kaluli conversation and narration. What might be heard as regular “interruption” is not that at all, but rather the collaborative and co-creative achievement of dulugu sala, ‘lift-up-over speaking.’ […] Multiple voices hold the floor simultaneously and parties address multiple others and agendas simultaneously, without any voice continually dominating or organizing the stream of discussion.
These are merely two examples that happen to be discussed in studies that otherwise focus on music, and there are certainly thousands more in the literatures of anthropology and linguistics.
What, then, might the consequences be of our emphasis on one, culturally specific, style of public speaking in our classrooms? Are we promoting cultural homogenization? How might we reconcile an appreciation for the diversity of oral communication styles with an acknowledgement that mainstream North American academic culture has converged on a set of criteria for what makes good public speaking? I assume experts in communication have given this some thought. Peter Elbow addresses the culturally inflected character of speech and writing in his book Vernacular Eloquence, and I was interested to hear concerns about what messages we are sending ESL students when we point them to resources for accent “reduction” at a recent meeting. And yet, our materials on oral communication seem to rehash the same assumption that there is a universal mode of effective public speaking. One document we use purports to deliver “the essential elements and some tips on preparing and organizing a successful oral presentation in English or any other language.” Although it does later advise readers to keep the first language and professional field of their audience in mind when planning a presentation, the guidance provided is ultimately in line with the basic ideas mentioned above.
I don’t have any concrete answers to these questions, but let me offer a couple of half-formed and probably unoriginal thoughts:
Firstly, oral communication styles, like musical systems and language itself, are thoroughly interwoven with the cultures from which they emerge, and it is significant when societies or individuals are compelled to change their forms of communication. Turino illustrates this point vividly when he describes how Conimeños who migrated to Peru’s capital began adopting the Hispanicised speech style of the city’s European descendants, and how this development put a strain on communication, and relations more generally, between the migrants and elders back in the home district. Secondly, tied as they are to a cultural habitus, forms of public speech may be linked to forms of politics. As it happens, the non-confrontational, indirect style of communication in Conima corresponds to a generally egalitarian society in which decisions are reached by consensus, “public political and religious offices rotate equally among adult male community members, and equality of opportunity is given precedence over individual competence.” The Kaluli, too, were characterized as an egalitarian group. I would have little basis for attempting to correlate the monologic mode of formal speech and its attendant aesthetics to the hierarchical and unequal organization of capitalism, but I can’t help thinking that for all their eye contact, well-projected voices, clear diction, and savvy off-the-cuff handling of prepared speaking points, our politicians give us little in the way of truth, integrity, or effective governance.