Many years ago I spent a pleasant mid morning sitting in the sun being read to. The occasion was a writers’ festival in my home town of Adelaide, Australia and the reader was Louis de Bernières. He’d just completed his novella Red Dog (now a movie) and wanted to try it out on a real audience. When he announced that he was just going to read, and not talk and engage with the audience – the usual genre at these kinds of events – there was a collective frown. de Bernières was going to break the unwritten rules and we were going to be cheated.
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. de Bernières is an accomplished reader, the Red Dog stories were funny and elegantly written and the audience was highly engaged for an hour.
Adelaide Writers’ Week
Whenever I think about reading aloud I remember this particular event, as it so encapsulated the sheer pleasure of being able to listen, really listen, to words put together in ways that inform, stimulate and please. Reading aloud, and the telling of stories, brings people together, creates a magic that suspends everyday life, and has the power to make all else fade into the background. Of course, the reader has to be highly skilled, and the text well-crafted in order to achieve this kind of effect.
I wonder occasionally if this experience says anything to academic writing and presentation. What does it take to create such engrossed attention by simply reading words on a page?
We’ve all seen bad academic reading aloud. And on more than one occasion. The conference paper presentation where the writer simply puts their paper up in front of their face and proceeds to plod through section after section of it. The key note who puts up slide after slide and then recites each one to us.
It’s tempting to think that the solution to the badly read paper is that we academics should never read aloud. But there are plenty of reasons to do so – we might be nervous and need a written text in order to make sure that we don’t go off piste. We might be giving a long and high stakes key note and we want to make sure that what we say is well planned and able to withstand videoing and re-listening to. We might just be giving a regular lecture and want to make sure we cover a given set of points and material. We might believe that we can’t speak off the cuff. Reading from a paper is justifiable in all of these circumstances.
And it’s equally tempting to suggest that the problem is the reader. The reader just can’t read. They can’t put light, shadow and emphasis into the text. They should be more entertaining. I don’t want to get into this. I figure that we can all read aloud well enough – I’m sure we could all benefit from some practice, but that’s not really the major problem. The key issue is actually the text we are reading.
Academic writing isn’t like that of Louis de Bernières. We aren’t writing fiction.We write argument, interpret texts and statistics, present data, refer to other scholarly work. And this kind of academic writing just doesn’t work in the same way when it is read aloud to an audience as when we read it to ourselves. That’s because writing something intended to be read aloud is not necessarily the same as writing something to be read silently. This is particularly true of academic writing which usually has lots of conventions, abstractions and formalisms that just sound truly terrible when they are read out loud.
Brian Massumi recently noted this, saying of his writing and speaking:
I think a lot about how I address the reader. I want to make the reading in some way enjoyable, however difficult it might get in places. I try to lead the reader in and move the reading forward with a rhythm that recalls the rhythms of speech (using techniques like alternation in the length of sentences, or between words of latin and anglo-saxon etymology, or between technical words and everyday expressions, tones of high seriousness and asides verging on silliness, etc). The essays aren’t made to be read out loud, but as I write I need to be able hear the language as if it were to be spoken. In other words, I talk to myself as I write, but on the understanding with myself that the result is very much a written product and is not speech, even if it carries certain echoes of its rhythms. Even though I talk to myself through my writing, it is very hard for me to deliver my essays as talks. To feel comfortable presenting them orally, I have to recompose them for speech (as opposed to writing them with certain properties of speech).
Ah. Writing a paper in order that it can be spoken. Re-writing the meant-to-be-silently-read text so that it can be spoken. That’s the step that the people who do those dreadful paper readings at conferences don’t get.
A written academic paper is almost always not the same as the paper that has been written specifically for reading aloud. The paper to be read aloud is likely to be less formal and have less commentary than a journal article. It might offer different kinds of signposting than a conventional academic journal article (although there might still be a bit of “Today Im going to cover a, b, c… I’ve said this so far”). The paper to be read aloud might foreground examples and stories and bring them into conversation with analysis in a much more casual way than a published paper. There might be a lot less citation, with mention only of the key scholars whose ideas are used or challenged.
You see, the writer of the paper to be read has to think about the audience. How to keep them engaged? How to manage the staging of ideas and examples so that they keep listening and thinking? How to persuade and convince them while also keeping them interested?
We ought not to expect academic writing to be as entertaining as Lois de Bernières and Red Dog. Not possible. Not sensible. Why even think about it? We are not ‘entertainers’. But if we do want to nuance the reading aloud, then some of the things that performers think about might be helpful. We don’t have to be an entertainer to learn from their practice. We can ask – How to manage the actual talking? Where to pause? How to ensure that there are shades of emphasis, rhythms and rises and falls in the narrative? These questions are helpful because we can write these things into the text if we imagine ourselves speaking as we write.
We can surely go some way towards making the papers we read aloud more interesting. We can certainly get away from the dull drone and the syntax that is awful to the ear. This doesn’t mean throwing a few jokes into the same old same old paper, but considering how writing meant to be listened to differs from writing intended to be read silently.
To sum up then – a first step in making our spoken presentations more interesting is to think not simply about readers for academic writing, but also about listeners for our talks. A second step is to write the paper to be read aloud, if that is what is required, and another version for publication.