Skills for action: Writing and talking

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Skills for Action: Writing and Talking. Notes on effective communication.


The accepted wisdom is that if you can speak and write `properly' you are `intelligent', if not, you are stupid. However, it is effectiveness of communication that matters, not whether a particular prescribed formula is followed or not.

To organise ourselves, we need to communicate effectively. In the past, Trades Unions placed great emphasis on communication, but as the Unions have declined in effectiveness, so this emphasis has been lost. The opportunities to develop these skills outside the narrow and often destructive confines of state education have thus declined markedly.

Solidarity Federation recognises how crucial communication is, and

how important self-education is in developing effective communication

skills. This guide to effective speaking and writing is an example of putting this recognition into practice. It has been compiled from notes made at the Solidarity Federation `Skills for Action' summer school workshop entitled `Writing and Talking', which was held at the Manchester Solidarity Centre in August 1998

SPEAKING IN PUBLIC Freedom Of Thought, Freedom Of Speech

Ideas of `democracy' and `freedom' are useless if you don't have the confidence to communicate in public. Anarcho-syndicalism emphasises self-organisation and participation within democratic structures. The cornerstone of this democratic self-organisation is meeting together in groups. It therefore follows that people must develop the confidence to speak in public, since they have to be able to participate openly in these meetings and public groups. Such communication skills are crucial to the success of any self-organised libertarian organisation or society.

Speaking in a meeting is very stressful at first. If this common fear is not addressed, it is left up to the most confident/experienced people present to communicate with each other and on behalf of those who feel unable to. This is unlikely to help the situation, and can make people lose self-confidence further. Ignoring this problem creates a vacuum in which alienation flourishes. Addressing the problem means actively finding ways of empowering new/less confident people so they can participate equally. Practically, it means filling the vacuum - giving people the opportunity to gain communication skills and confidence; it means self-education.

So it follows that anarcho-syndicalist organisations such as the Solidarity Federation must actively help existing and new members to develop their verbal communication skills.

Within Solidarity Federation groups, who meet regularly, it is the responsibility of the group to give practical help, encouragement and advice to assist people to feel relaxed and able to communicate whenever they choose. In other words, in meetings, everyone present has the right to speak and therefore the right to the communication skills and the confidence they need to do this. On the other hand, everyone also has the duty to assist others in getting their message across, to allow for and consider the communication skills and the opinions of others, and to play their part in ensuring that the meeting is structured so that everyone can communicate what they want to it.

When it comes to people getting up and presenting prepared talks, there

are some specific techniques that can be useful. These form the basis of the remainder of the workshop.

Public Meetings

There are a number of ways for speakers to get around the intimidation

that can arise in meeting situations (even in small meetings). Firstly, we

must recognise that there is no single `correct' method - everyone develops their own skills and gets to know the best approach to use for them. Secondly, there are different types of meeting. The two which we will concentrate on here are: (a) Persuasive - an action-orientated meeting, where the speaker might be arguing for a certain course of action, and; (b) Descriptive - a meeting where the speaker wants to explain an idea or communicate information.

The Persuasive Meeting

This is probably the easiest meeting to make interesting - because you

as a speaker will be arguing for something that you feel very strongly about. Also, the audience knows your agenda and it is clear what you want.

You must feel strongly about your subject. This means your message

can be injected with passion quite naturally. Passion generates interest - it can also lead to haranguing or shouting, or even choking up and breaking down in tears. Even if your voice is faltering, or your sentences are no longer flowing, passion helps to impress upon people how strongly you feel. Letting go of your emotions is a key persuasive tool. It is this that carries you through and keeps the audience's attention.

However, it is important not to lose the message in the emotion! Always

keep to the forefront of your thoughts what it is you want out of the meeting. Be clear what your aims and objectives are. Structure your talk so that your conclusion is clear and there is a natural progression towards this conclusion.

The Descriptive Meeting

Explaining ideas may appear less contentious and therefore easier than

persuading people, but it can actually be more problematic. If you are dealing with a `dry' or technical topic (say, European Monetary Union), shouting and bawling at people won't work. Passion can't be relied upon to get you through any more.

Firstly, you need to find ways of keeping the audience's attention. This

means making the talk fresh and relevant. To get over the “dryness” of some topics it is useful to expose any humour, topicality or direct connection with the audience. For example, break the ice with self-deprecating humour. Make a point about the journey to the talk, or something that has just happened which is relevant to the topic and the people in the room.

Secondly, even if your delivery is good, you need to be confident in the substance of your message - that it is relevant and important and useful.

Preparation and Delivery

There are a number of approaches to the actual preparation and delivery

of a talk. Whichever you use, remember that, when talking in front of people, spontaneity cannot be relied upon to happen. Good preparation is the key.

1. Reading out a prepared speech.

This works only if you can read out loud well. It can get around the problem of “what can I say next” and the danger of `freezing' (or thinking that you might freeze - which can cause you to do it). One of the problems is that it becomes clear to the audience that you are reading. People may then think `why did I come here, I could have read it myself'. When people attend a talk, they expect to see more than reading. Politicians get around this by using invisible screens, etc., and by developing their reading technique so that it appears quite spontaneous. They also give very few different speaches, so they learn and deliver the same lines over and over again.

Obviously, you will have to write your speech out, but remember that the spoken word is different from the written word. A speech is different from an essay. You must go over it a few times, and check that you have

written down what somebody might say, not what they might write! You

should write in apparently `spontaneous' asides, to keep the interest going.

2. Using Speakers Notes.

This is the most common approach, where the speaker uses notes as

prompts. Beware, this approach can lead to the worst of both worlds; you have to break periodically to refer to your notes (so it looks like you are reading), while at the same time, you also have to memorise the parts between the notes (so there is also the fear of forgetting a part of your talk and freezing). Also, you have to be confident of not losing your place in your notes. If you are nervous this can easily happen. Again, preparation is the key. Write the speech out in full and then `boil it down' in to notes. Practice from the notes and see how well you remember and link the points. On the plus side, it does provide some security

against coming across as reading (between looking at your notes) and also some security against freezing and forgetting (because you do have some notes to refer back to). Also, it is a common form of speaking, so the audience is likely to be familiar with the speaker glancing down at their notes from time to time.

Variations on this theme might include using cards with the first

sentence of each section of your speech on each one, or with particular quotes you might want to use. Visual aids may even be used - e.g. overhead projectors with notes on them. People can both see and hear the message this way and you don't need to keep looking down. The speaker also escapes the problem of everyone staring intently at them all the time! The major problems with such visual aids are that they aren't always working or available, they introduce an often unwelcome `school' type element, and people often don't want to or can't effectively read while they are listening. Thus, you lose their concentration, attention, and the diversion detracts from the message.

3. No notes.

Speaking without notes, you still have to prepare them, but you do the

talking from memory. The key advantage here is that you don't have to

switch your attention between the written word and the spoken word. This transfer is much more difficult for some people than others, but it always requires part of your concentration. If you have the confidence

to speak without notes and can overcome the fear of forgetting and freezing, then this is the best approach. The initial approach is the same as all techniques; you have to write out your speech in full, then boil it down to notes. From these notes, you then make a shortened plan which you can memorise. Then, as you deliver the talk, each of the points on the plan will lead your memory to the sections that you had written in your full talk. Practice the speech a few times while you're

doing the washing up, etc. to ensure these links work.

No notes may seem to be only for the experienced, but it can also be a

good approach for people who are feeling nervous. If you have practised it and you know you can remember it, you can feel confident that you are prepared. This confidence helps overcome nerves.

18 Tips on Public Speaking

1 Don't be conned into doing a topic you have no interest in. Passion

and interest in your topic are necessary. Make sure it's your decision.

2 Give yourself time to prepare (think about it for weeks if possible,

and spend a few evenings writing and re-writing). Last minute speaches are disastrous. Good preparation also boosts confidence.

3 Dummy run: Practice different ways of doing talks - get your local

Solidarity Federation group to participate, within a friendly and

sympathetic environment.

4 There's no right way to speak. Anyone can speak in public. As long as it's clear and understandable, it doesn't matter what your accent, background or disposition is like. Good preparation, good content, familiarity, and confidence is all you need. If you have something useful to say, your own style can work.

5 Avoid going over "worst case scenarios" - that someone might rip your argument apart, or think you're stupid, etc.. If your preparation and topic is good, it won't happen. You should simply relax on the night before your talk.

6 Don't get there too early, especially if you're nervous of people

weighing you up. Get there at most an hour before, and spend the time going over in your head what you're going to say.

7 Don't drink alcohol to help your nerves; it is a false comfort.

8 Always have someone (preferably known/sympathetic to you)

chair the meeting. They can introduce you, direct questions to you, prevent interruptions, and generally organise the meeting. They also reduce the feeling of isolation.

9 Getting started is the worst bit. Remember, fear and nerves usually disappear less than 5 minutes into the talk.

10 Freezing: If you freeze, the main thing is to get started again, and

everything will come back. If you're using notes, refer to them to get back on track. Otherwise, practice or have an emergency line, e.g. "so, as I was saying, this talk is about ....". Another way is to say "my mind's gone blank". It will break the ice and relax you and the audience - they will generally be on your side.

11 The message is everything. Patchy presentation doesn't matter if you have a well-argued message.

12 Ignore nerves and worry. Again, people will warm to you if you're

nervous - they know public speaking is nerve-wracking. Don't worry about getting embarrassed or going red. People will identify with you as being human. You can't stop yourself looking nervous or embarrassed, so ignore it and get on with the talk.

13 Don't judge yourself by people's faces. Some may look asleep, but

they could be the ones to ask all the questions afterwards. Make eye contact and address your audience, but do not look for any messages from them while you are speaking.

14 Controversy: It's easy to feel that you want to be loved, but don't be

surprised if people disagree with you. It's not your ability as a speaker that's wrong. If the audience connects with you and gets the message, it worked. Discussion and argument is usually a better sign than no one saying anything, but equally, don't be put off by silence. People are often not used to speaking up - society has brought us all up to be consumers not producers of ideas, so we generally find it hard to make verbal contributions in public.

15 Familiarity: Remember, actors, musicians, etc still get stage fright,

even after years of experience. The fear thing always remains. Develop your own routine of preparing and delivering. Pick topics you feel familiar with, especially for your first few talks. Professionals only have a few basic speeches, which they develop and alter over the years.

16 Avoid ad-libbing. Good speakers may seem to ad-lib, but it is all

planned either on paper or in their head. Even when you want to contribute to a group meeting from the floor of a meeting, put your hand up and then use the time until its your turn to speak to go over on paper, or in your head, what point you are going to make and why.

17 Never go away thinking it was a disaster. Instead, always look at how to improve it next time. Judge yourself by how well you put across the points you wanted. Go back and look at your preparation. Was it too cluttered? Did it hang together properly?

18 Solidarity in improvement: If you don't know how to improve, seek advice from friends in Solidarity Federation - preferably people who have also done public speaking. Get them to help you test out new improvements to the message, technique and delivery.



There are plenty of parallels between talking and writing as forms of

communication, for example, in the techniques for persuading and describing. However, the main problem facing many would-be writers is the question of what is `good' writing and how it `should' be done. Again, like talking, the key to measuring whether writing is `good' is whether it is effective - whether it succeeds in getting the message across that you wanted to communicate.

Most people have had someone try to shame them at some point for

their writing `mistakes'. There is no room for `shame' in developing writing skills. The `Queens English' is an irrelevant notion, as is `correct' writing. The idea of correctness revolve around a few privileged people trying to elevate their power and status over everyone else. In reality, languages are always changing, both in terms of words we use and the way we spell, punctuate and order them in writing. We don't talk of `correct' food, clothing etc., and we shouldn't talk of `correct' language or writing. Rather than asking yourself what is the `correct' way to write, ask what you want to write about and why.

Real Writing Skills

Writing well is not about using correct English, it is about using persuasion and/or information to get a message across. Often, both are

involved, a typical formula being; argue and persuade (make your point) first, then back up with facts and information later. Getting spelling and grammar `right' means getting into a form which people are familiar with. It is a minor problem - and the skills and tools are available to assist with this. They are called `secretarial skills' and many can be done with a computer spellchecker or by getting one or two friends to proof read it and make alterations. The real writing skills are the developing and ordering of thoughts, ideas and arguments. Just as teaching people to write should not be about exerting power over them, so writing should not be about exerting power over readers either. This means deliberately trying to be clever or confuse or `get one over on' the reader is wrong. It does not help get the point across, quite the opposite.

Effective writing is about passing on important arguments and information, not trying to alienate people. Don't use words or terms because they will show how clever you are - the genuine reader will just see how clever you aren't! Using French phrases in persuasive English writing is usually posing twaddle. Writing skills mean getting across a point clearly, comprehension, communicating information, also; communicating a clear case/agenda/set of thought.

Clarity in Writing

The following are general pointers which are not always hard and fast

rules, but which generally will help to improve the clarity and strength

of the message in your writing.


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