Thursday, September 20, 2007

On speaking and writing, teaching and learning

I'm in the middle of a busy season - nine speaking engagements in six weeks. Six of those are the Sunday school class I'm guest teaching at Immanuel Presbyterian (which one of the class members blogged about). This past Sunday I also gave an hour-and-a-half presentation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Charles; it was kind of like giving three different sermons back to back. A bit tiring, but it went well. I don't know how professors teach three- or four-hour block classes! Then next week I'll be leading some workshops at the Willow Creek Group Life Conference. The week after that I'm headed to Minnesota to speak at Homecoming at my undergrad alma mater, Crossroads College. Whew! Plus I'm also scheduled to lead a morning devotion during a planning retreat next week.

They say that whenever you speak, you actually give three talks. There's the talk that you plan to give, the talk you actually give, and the talk you wish you had given. This was certainly the case at Bethlehem Lutheran. I came in with way more material than there was time for (always better to overprepare than underprepare, I think). So during small group processing times in the midst of the presentation, I was scribbling around my manuscript, slashing paragraphs, deciding what to cut and skip and highlight and whatnot. I was discombobulated enough at one point that I glossed over an entire page and then tried to go back later and catch some of it. It didn't flow great, but it was okay.

I tend to be a manuscript speaker. I generally write out all my comments ahead of time, word for word. Other speakers and preachers are able to speak from outlines or brief notes ("tell Jell-O story here"), but I can't do it. I'll adjust things on the fly as I speak, so I'm not entirely tied to the text, but unless I'm very familiar with the material, I can't speak without notes. The manuscript pages are my security blanket. That way, if I have a brain freeze and blank out, I can at least look down on the page and read something.

Writing and speaking are very different mediums, rhetorically. It doesn't work for me to cut and paste from my book chapters and try to turn them into talks. It tends to sound too abstract that way. I find it works better to look over my published material but then to open a new Word document and write a fresh talk around the content. Otherwise I'll use vocabulary and language that just don't sound right conversationally.

Blogging is a little different. My "blogging voice" tends to sound more like my conversational speaking voice, so I can occasionally cut and paste from a blog post and insert that material into a talk. But I can't cut and paste from a talk or a blog entry and try to put it into a book chapter. Writing for publication, for me at least, requires a different mindset and approach, and I'm a lot more careful about word choice and sentence structure and all that.

These days, authors are increasingly required to be public speakers. The more visible an author is, out speaking and whatnot, the more likely people will find the books. But many authors are not great public speakers, and many public speakers are not great writers. Though there's overlap, these worlds are very different. Compare this with music or theatre. For musicians and actors, public performance is a necessary component of their art. They give concerts, they have onstage personas. But writers, often introverts by nature, usually ply their craft in solitude (or at Starbucks), and what emerges from that creative context doesn't necessarily translate well to the conference platform.

At one point I was planning on pastoral ministry, so I've had my share of homiletics courses and sermon prep. I'm an extrovert, so I enjoy going out and speaking and interacting with people. And I learn a lot from these experiences; all of it helps refine my material and shape my thinking. But sometimes part of me wishes I could just mail my book out instead of talking. After all, in terms of sheer content delivery, talks are rather inefficient. I can only say so much in a half hour talk, and books can give a lot more analysis and depth. When I'm talking, I'll think to myself, here's the overview and the summary bullet points, but if you want the real scoop on all this, read chapter 3!

But I know that pedagogically, public speaking can do things that mere reading can't. I think in some ways it might be harder to construct a good class or workshop than to write an essay or article. When writing, I'm mostly just thinking about content and style. But a workshop or talk requires thinking through how people will be experiencing the material in real time. Is this too much? Too theoretical? Do I need an illustration here? Group discussion? An interactive activity? Sadly, it's easier to just deliver a lecture and be done with it than to really work through what would be good pedagogy. As one of my mentors mentioned to me, professors usually focus on their teaching and don't think enough about the students' actual learning. Because it's harder - there are a just a lot more variables and factors beyond the teacher's control.

So kudos to all teachers, professors, pastors and preachers out there - I recognize how difficult it is to do what you do! Thanks for your faithfulness in preparation and teaching day in and day out, preaching Sunday after Sunday, year after year. Those of us in the publishing world have a lot to learn from you.


Anonymous said...

Hello Al,

I'm off topic here, but a couple weeks ago you responded to a comment on the IVP blog saying, "The topics of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing and advice for first-time authors are huge, so I'll try to post on those in separate entries."

Have you had the chance to blog on that yet? I wasn't able to find it. As a zeroth-time author hoping to become a first-timer, I'd be interested in your thoughts.


Al Hsu said...

Yep, I'm still planning on commenting on that, but it's been a bit crazy lately. I'll try to get to it in the next few weeks.

Tina Boyer said...

You have a great blog--fascinating, timely, provocative.

Thank you, and please don't stop.


Anonymous said...

> Yep, I'm still planning on
> commenting on that, but it's
> been a bit crazy lately.
Indeed, it is ironic that I chose to ask my question under this particular post. Looking back, it makes me feel silly. May God strengthen you to delight in Him and remain focused during these busy times.