The Forgotten Art of Thinking Before Speaking
The importance of pondering time and listening for communication skills
By MARTIN REZNY
As I’m nearing my fourteenth year in competitive debating, now a judge and trainer of speakers, aspiring speakers seem to me to be losing their way, including those who are teaching them. As with everything else these days, the emphasis is shifting towards the constant doing of things, more exercise, more homework, more tests, more practice. I’d advise you to slow down.
There are two other essential components of speech apart from the act of speaking, and those are listening and thinking. Unless whatever advice or teacher you follow addresses how to improve these two as well as your speech, you’re not getting a complete education in the field. Perhaps because of my natural affinity to these two, I didn’t need any teacher or advice at all.
I have learned English language without a teacher or textbooks, too, and so I have learned almost anything else that mattered to me — classical musical composition, programming, poetry writing, the list goes on. I didn’t even know how I’m doing it at first, or that I’m doing it at all, and that’s because thinking isn’t obvious. It is an activity, however, the lack of which is limiting.
There isn’t much useful scientific theory or research in regard to this matter, but what is there is nicely summed up by John Cleese of Monty Python fame. There are two basic modes of operation, open and closed, and if anything creative is to get done, stunning performance as a speaker included, both are needed in equal measure. Put simply, it’s thinking phase versus doing phase.
Doing phase doesn’t require much explanation, you know what to do (you already have a plan) and you try to do it as efficiently as possible. That’s where the usual learning, training, or practice fit in. Before and after that, however, what’s needed is an allotted, uninterrupted, distraction and instruction free time, during which to ponder and entertain original ideas.
Without that time, you will have a difficulty in several areas that are key to a top notch speaker performance. So, even if you are the type of person who feels that people are lazy unless they’re constantly busy doing something, I hope you are that way because you care about accomplishing results, and because this is about accomplishing results, even you may change your mind.
Let’s take the doing phases one by one, and how free thinking time enhances them. First, learning. You should know things to have things to say, to be able to answer questions, or to know what questions will be relevant. Normally, people spend time trying to memorize a ton of data to that effect. Fine. But let me ask you this: On the basis of what do you know which data to prioritize?
After all, there’s nearly infinite amount of accessible data these days, and relying on someone else to make the selection for you makes you an unoriginal speaker. Unoriginal speakers are predictable, and predictable speakers are easy to prepare against. Thinking time before and after learning gives you the ability to navigate between many possible avenues of inquiry.
Second, training. Training exercise is not a real world situation, which is something to think about in and of itself so that you don’t over-prepare, over-train, or over-rely on it, but there’s more. Much like with learning, you don’t know which exercise you currently need until you think about it, and training just for the sake of training would be the real waste of time.
But perhaps the most ominous of all, leaving the creative free thinking to someone else who tells you what to learn and how to train makes your own ability to think on your toes atrophy. In an interactive speaking situation, you need to reprioritize on the go, choosing which of the prepared things to use or discard, and without strong thinking skills, you can only do as you prepared.
Thirdly, practice. Practice is fine, of course. Much like sports people do, even speaking can be to some extent rote-learned. It’s easier to do again what you’ve done or seen before without any time to think required. Similarly, however, neuroscience has shown that there’s very little difference for your brain between thinking about doing something and doing it, even physically.
What that means is that imagining debating something, what you would say, what someone could say against that, what you could to say to that, and so on, is a form of practice. Strategically, you need to learn to be able to give immediate spontaneous responses that are poignant and well thought out, which is what you become able to do by spending time arguing with yourself.
Finally, I’d like to say a bit more about listening. Listening has multiple key functions in a debate-like situation, some of which I have already touched on. You can learn to repeat something good that somebody else has said. You can learn language the best by listening to good examples of it. You will know what exactly your opponent argued, which is needed for any counterstrategy.
But it’s more than that. What generally doesn’t get touched on as much by most practitioners of speech or debate is that being a speaker is not just a neutral technique meant to persuade people. How you do it is tied to your character. What kind of person you are shows in how you speak through strategic choices (or lack thereof), but also how you speak shapes you.
The more and the better you listen to other people and the less you speak yourself, the more you shift from self-obsessed and self-imposed worldview to that of understanding others and being genuinely interested in what they have to say. Just look at Ted Cruz, a former elite debater. He clearly only speaks to win, all for himself, and as such, doesn’t care about others at all.
To my great sadness, this is the worst that debating can do to you, personally. That is, if you learn it wrong, without reflection. Speakers like these are not waiting for the other to make their case, they try to maneuver them into saying that which can be easily defeated, and will take anything the other has said out of context if misrepresenting it is strategically advantageous to them.
They don’t want to listen, they want to essentially shut up the opponent, take away their ability to express themselves, because that is seen as a victory. A truly great speaker can defeat his or her opponent at their best, or, and that’s even more impressive, gladly lose if they discover that the other has a greater truth. That’s true learning, and for that, listening and thinking trump speech.
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