Evolutions in Communication

It’s always fun when I sit in my office and get to hear students practicing their class presentations outside my door. We have a large SMART board and some comfy couches right there, so it’s a natural place for that kind of activity, but somehow I never tire of hearing these run-throughs. It’s really one of the only times I see the fruits of research activities, since we almost never see student papers.

This morning I mused on the natural progressions I see in all kinds of communication skills, and that I remember going through myself during college and graduate school. There’s an interesting phase we go through where we imitate the rhetorical structures and even the mannerisms of some idealized Smart Person. We try on jargon and clump around in it like we did our grandparents’ shoes when we were young. We start questioning our conclusions and worrying that they’re self-evident. We aren’t quite sure which evidence might be too self-evident, so some key pieces of it never make it into the final product. (Just as a side note, I love watching undergrads negotiate this phase because it’s a great way to learn what it is that they see happening when accomplished scholars perform their work.)

The next phase is one of extreme confidence. This is when we think that our readers or listeners probably pay the same amount of attention to the words, phrases, arguments, and conclusions of our work that we are learning to pay to theirs as we pour over their works in preparation for assignments and lectures. This is when formal communication becomes less of an act of dress-up and more of a game or, in the worst cases, a contest. “If my readers can hold this allusion and that metaphor and this key phrase and that piece of evidence in their minds all at the same time, they’ll understand that I’m being witty in this statement and the whole piece will be even more interesting for them to read.” This kind of writing is fun. I remember the exhilaration of weaving together fine works of analytical art and handing them in, knowing full well that my professors would enjoy a carefully and consciously crafted piece of writing. And in some cases, this is the style of writing that particular audiences did want. But little by little, I realized that not all audiences are thrilled by the prospect of performing mental gymnastics. Which brings me to the next phase…

There’s a fine art to writing in a way that clearly communicates what you want to say without forcing your audience to work at understanding you. This is the stage where writers start deliberately trying to misunderstand their own writing (knowing full well that somebody will take that beautiful sentence the wrong way) and revising their work to make misunderstandings as rare as possible. And it’s not just about misunderstandings. Remember those comments that just said “awkward” in the margins of papers you got back from professors? This is the stage where that all begins to make sense. Whereas before, respecting your audience meant trusting that they could follow you through complex writing, now respecting your audience means knowing that they probably could follow you if they wanted to, but that they’re much happier if you don’t cause them fatigue.

This is the kind of writing I aspire to, but it’s much, much harder than the complex writing I practiced in grad school.

Having said that, watch as I glibly push “Publish Post” without re-reading this lengthy piece of writing about writing….