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Rhetorical Power—Does it exist?

Scarlett Johanssen raising her arm in a speech in protest
Sometimes we need to be able to speak up, rather than write. Scarlett Johanssen obviously knows how to do it. How come I’m not sure if I have the right skills?

One of the most important skills a technical communicator possesses is a true command of language, and the use of words in particular. We know that we excel at the written word, but how are we with speaking?

Sometimes our spoken word is just speaking our written words. That’s okay. But when we have to speak clearly, concisely, and cogently off-the-cuff–in the moment–how do we do? I’m sure that like most of the population, it’s a mix of those who are gifted verbally, those who are not, and the rest of the group falling in-between those two groups. As I thought about it, I decided tech comm’ers need to be in that gifted group, or work to be in that group. My problem is that as much as I try to have excellent oratorical skills, I’m not sure that I do.

I had some events recently, two incidents in particular that happened this past weekend, which caused me to doubt my rhetorical abilities. Last week, I was leading the STC-PMC conference, CONDUIT, and rather than prepare special notes, I decided to wing my introduction, and my introductions for the keynote speakers (I know both of them), and talked with a lot of people, and I was feeling pretty confident of how I was able to speak and set the tone of the conference.

A couple nights ago, one of the aforementioned incidents confirmed that confidence. I was at a dinner last night for the alumnae presenters and speakers for a conference I was attending over the weekend. One of the keynote speakers for the day was someone I’ve known since high school when she was a freshman and I was a junior (she was in my sister’s class). She is now famous as a celebrity skin care specialist. Anyhow, someone asked her if she was ready to speak, and she said, “Oh Gawd, no!”, and explained that she could do sound bites for television, video blogs, and magazines, but speeches were not her strength. She then posed the question, “Can anyone speak off the cuff like that?” Everyone at the table, who all attended the same school I did where rhetorical skills were a must to get through, all said no–except me. “Of course I can,” I replied. I was truly surprised that these women who had been trained to be “warrior women” couldn’t do that. It’s not that I felt superior, but I thought, geez, how did you not continue to develop that skill over the last 20 to 30 years as executives and professionals? I’m not even an executive and I could do that. Was that the power of tech comm and that command of language I talked about? Perhaps.

But what had happened earlier in the same evening has put things in doubt. I won’t go too deep into the specifics, but I had a verbal altercation which involved me speaking up against misbehaving children that I think I handled okay, but being a cognitive dimwit, I think I could’ve done better.  I could hear other really well-spoken, quick-witted technical communicators that I know in my imagination later who I know would have come up with better responses that would have shut these people down more quickly. One of the people from the altercation who felt I was out of line called me rude and horrible towards children. Anyone who knows me knows I’m actually really great with children (I usually like kids better than adults), but in this case, children were being disruptive and disrespectful, and all I did was I say to the children in a stern but polite voice to stop screaming and running in this public place. I had already heard them ignore their dads three times to stop, and they didn’t, and it was getting worse. Long story, short, the kids did stop, there was a heated exchange, and the fathers and one mother tried to berate me. After the exchange was essentially over and my back was turned away from them, one of the fathers passed by me afterwards, and uttered a threat that if his buddies weren’t around, he’d beat me up. Of course, my first thought was “Bring it on!” since I have black belt in taekwondo and could probably smear him into the sidewalk. But, while I can’t remember my actual verbal response, I’m pretty sure it was something along the lines of “Really?” or “Seriously?” Afterwards, I was thinking about how his wife and kids must live with this awful person who would make a threat like that, and that his priority was that he’d be more embarrassed to punch a woman in front of his friends than his wife and small children. And all because he was not disciplining his kids. Seriously.

I was within my rights to say something, and I was bringing the mom/teacher tone with the kids. One of the kids eventually came back and apologized (I don’t know if it was at a parent’s prompting), and I kindly accepted the apology. I also apologized to the kid for yelling and said that I was frustrated, and as he was one of the older ones, asked if he could help the smaller kids understand. He was nice, and I was being nice back. I could be the responsible adult that their dads weren’t being. I had hoped that at least one of the parents heard what I had said in that I apologized as well.

But in the end, I’ve never gotten into a verbal altercation like that, let alone being threatened by someone. So, as much as thought I handled it as well as I could I could have, I was really agitated by the whole thing. Once I got home and tried sleeping, all I could think about was how I could have handled it better, or had that golden tongue to shut them down quicker. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and since I couldn’t sleep from being so agitated from the incident, as all the wittier and more appropriate responses came to mind, making me angry at myself to not think of these responses at the time.

Perhaps it’s my autism at work. Maybe not. I don’t know. I’m also at an age where I feel that I don’t care what people think. I want to speak my mind whenever I can, and I bite my tongue more often than speak up. (I know some people who know me well would be surprised to read that). And yet, I do care. After discussing the incident further with my husband later, he felt this incident was an exception not the rule, because when the adrenaline is going, your mind will work very differently than when not under threat.

The next day, I listened to the keynote speaker, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, give a message that making an impact is more important than being famous. This is why I’m in technical communication. The daily work of tech comm’ers impacts lives. But what if we’re only good with written words and not spoken words? I fear this impacts our effectiveness and worth. So I’m at an impasse from recent events. Am I an effective rhetorical communicator or not?

In the end, I know there is power in words. As technical communicators, the words we choose have impact, whether they are written or spoken. If our written words are already strong, we need to ensure that our verbal words are equally as strong. Perhaps this is why I push myself to not always read off of written scripts or even to do presentations off of notes–to push myself to have more rhetorical power.  Even as I wrote this, it occurred to me that as we write, we have a chance to edit and refine our words, but we don’t necessarily have that opportunity to do that when we speak. That makes it tricky.

How would you rate yourself and rate the importance of rhetoric in tech comm? Include your comments below.

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Do you speak the Queen’s English? It’s a Rhetorical Question.

William and Kate,
aka The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

I’ve been a big royalty follower for 30 years. It started the weekend before the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, and it hasn’t stopped since that time. Nor has my interest in royals been limited to just the Brits. I’ve always been fascinated by any royals, no matter the nationality, and keep up with the “royal gossip” reading Hello Magazine online.

So, what does this have to do with anything, especially something related to technical communications? A friend of mine found the following article in the Telegraph, which talks about how the received pronunciation of how the Duke of Cambridge’s elders speak is starting to change to a more modern pronunciation, with less crispness and precision than in the past–more like how the Duchess of Cambridge and many average Brits speak.

Prince William’s cut-glass accent is a little less polished than Kate Middleton’s

To me, this fact is of notable significance. English, like any other language, is a constantly evolving language. While the same base language is spoken among those claiming to speak English, there are significant differences not only in pronunciation, but also in how it’s used. Those speaking English in India, Australia, and New Zealand greatly differentiate from their fellow speakers in Canada, the U.S. or South Africa. Heck, just within my own state of New Jersey, there are different pronunciations of certain words! Different vocabularies and different expressions are used often, but the foundation of the language is the same. This also applies to other languages as well that are used globally like Spanish and French.

This is an important thing to note, as rhetoric is a good part of technical communications. How language is presented in spoken word, whether by a recording, audio file or video file, can make a difference as to whether the message being delivered is clear to the audience.  This also has an impact on the translation in technical communications. Recalling Val Swisher’s talk on Adobe Day, the choice of words when writing documentation that needs to be translated into other languages is critical. Using expressions or colloquialisms is frowned upon, as often these expressions cannot be translated directly.

However, I’ve also seen this happen within different English dialects. For the past two months, I’ve been teaching a virtual technical and business writing course to Asian-based employees of a very large global software company. Of all the students I had, only one was a native English speaker. Knowing that typically British English is used outside the Americas to learn English, I did my best to adapt my vocabulary accordingly. (Good thing I’m such an Anglophile and watch a lot of British television these days!) Even with that, I could hear from my students–who usually spoke English well–that certain nuances from their particular locales still came through their speech, and I don’t mean just accents.  Students from India and Singapore were much more formal with their words and phrase choices than their colleagues based in Korea or Kuala Lumpur. There’s nothing wrong with that, but merely an observation.  I also thought about how American English has changed. If one watches an American film made in the 1930s or 1940s, much of the rhetoric used was very different from today, much like the American equivalent of the Queen’s English described in the article above. There are still very good speakers in the U.S, but that crispness of speech is more relaxed and modern.

For me, I think my rhetoric holds up decently enough. I know that I will slide into some bad habits now and then, but not too often. I don’t have a pronounced “Jersey” accent that’s put forth on television shows, but I am a native Jersey Girl through and through. (You can judge for yourself on the home page of my e-portfolio, where I’m featured in a video for NJIT’s MSPTC program.) One of my younger sisters is an actress, and while she has had extensive elocution lessons, she doesn’t necessarily have a particular accent, especially a “Jersey” accent. So when a famous British actor met her years ago and spoke with her at a book signing, he swore she was from Sweden and not from New Jersey!

As we become more globally aware, thanks to Internet connectivity, we need to become more aware of how we communicate to each other rhetorically to make sure that we understand each other as clearly as possible. As technical communicators, we should be setting the standards and leading the way for others.

So as you speak to fellow English speakers that you know locally and globally, how does your rhetoric stand up to the rest?

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American Elections and Technical Communication

Today is Election Day in the United States, and it’s a big one this year as we are having a presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I wish I could vote for the fictional character in the photo on the left instead, Jed Bartlet from the old television show, “The West Wing” (one of my all time favorite shows), but that’s neither here nor there.

One of the things that gets me fired up when watching “The West Wing” or even watching real-life politics is the rhetoric. One of my secret dreams is that I would become a speechwriter for the president. One of the things I loved doing when I was younger was write up speeches or documents meant to make strong positions clear on particular subjects. Even when listening to the political speeches of the current presidential candidates, you can hear very different styles being put forth to explain the ideals and issues of each candidate. One famous politician, former President Bill Clinton, is famous for having great speeches that run on for a very long time.

That got me to thinking. Perhaps speechwriters don’t need to be wordsmiths that look to expound in great detail all the pomposity of the issues and ideals of candidates. Political candidates should look for technical writers and technical communicators to help them write their speeches. Why? Instead of using big fancy words and blaggering on and on, technical writers would get to the heart of what the issues are, and what the plans of a candidate would be in addressing those issues. A technical writer’s  job is to make the complicated simple, to break down the most technical topics down to bite-sized, manageable pieces that can be more easily digested by any person reading or listening to the information being distributed.  Wouldn’t that make an election much easier? Wouldn’t that help voters have a better understanding of what each candidate stands for and what he or she represents?

I’m sure it’s mostly marketing and advertising types that work on these campaigns. After all, each candidate is trying to sell themselves to the public, and the information distributed through debates, flyers, robo-calls, and emails scream of advertising so that they can get contributions to help fund his or her respective campaign.  But in the end, voters need clear reasons on why a candidate is the better candidate for the job, and cutting right through the flowery “blah blah blah” and getting straight to the heart of issues would be much more accepted by the voting public. I think technical communicators as speechwriters and communications staff would have been optimal to make this a less complicated election.

And maybe, someday, I’ll have that speechwriting job after all.

If you have the ability to vote in this election, please remember that your vote really does count. If you feel passionately about your candidate of choice, don’t assume that he or she will get plenty of votes. There was one election in my home state a few years ago that showed in polls that one candidate was going to win, so people just stayed home. Instead, we got the other guy, and it hasn’t been that great for us since (can’t wait to vote him out!).  Even if it’s not election day where you live, do remember to exercise your right to vote if you can. It is the one opportunity for your voice to be heard. It only takes one person to turn over an election, and that voice could be yours.