I know how hard it is to listen to conference presentations on Zoom. What can I do to help my audience to follow my talk?
– English literature
Dr. Editor’s response:
Because others have already written about how to set up your workspace for presenting on Zoom (e.g. Hennessey, 2020), let’s focus specifically on the writing strategies that will help you to deliver a talk that your audience will understand and remember. After all, you can buy a wonderful ring light and the best microphone, but if your conference presentation isn’t comprehensible, you’ve wasted your money.
In English lit, as in many disciplines in the humanities, conference presentations are scripted and read aloud — a practice my father, an engineer, deplores, but that brings with it opportunities to implement and perfect tactics that aid the ear of a listener. A reader, silently viewing your words, has a very different experience from a listener: a reader can skim or re-read, can annotate, can cross-reference; a listener instead must both process and comprehend in real time.
Writing tactics to support your listeners’ experience include:
1. Sprinkle seeds
In Elements of Academic Style (2014), Eric Hayot recommends a strategy that I think of as seeding:
“If, for instance, you know that on page 45 you will be introducing an important concept, ‘diegetic rectitude,’ you can go back to earlier sections of the work and sprinkle in various cognates or synonyms of these terms (using ‘right’ or ‘rectify’ for ‘rectitude,’ for example) so as to prepare your readers’ ears (semi-consciously) for the eventual arrival of your master term. If they encounter ‘diegetic rectitude’ for the first time after having read sentences like, […] ‘Malory thus rectifies what we might think of as James’s diegetic “mistake,” adjusting narrative space to the purposes of plot,’ they will find the new term a comfortable resolution of a concept that, in hindsight, they will recognize had been developing for ten pages or so” (pp. 52–3).
What Dr. Hayot recommends for a reader “who will experience your work from start to finish, diachronically” (p. 52), is especially important for a listener who can neither turn back a page nor re-read a passage. When we seed our novel key terms, “sprinkl[ing] in various cognates or synonyms,” we prime a listener’s ears for the term that will later appear fully blossomed.
And evidence from psychological research suggests that listeners are not simply better able to understand words that have been thus seeded: they may also be more likely to believe a concept to be truer when it is more readily understandable. As Alter & Oppenheimer (2009) argue, “fluency [that is, the ease with which people process information in their brains] is a general mechanism that influences truth judgments” (p. 228). And because texts that contain words that are disfluent — that are unfamiliar or hard to pronounce — are more difficult to process, the content of these texts are less likely to be believed (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009).
In short: want to persuade your audience of the validity of your claims? Help them to believe you by priming them to understand your key terms.
2. Favour right-branching sentences
Right-branching sentences are active voice sentences in which additional details about the action come after — that is, in written English, to the right of — the subject and verb. For instance, “the child spilled the juice that stained the rug” is a right-branching sentence: we have our active voice subject + verb (“the child” + “spilled”), followed by a bit more information about what was spilled, followed by a bit more information about the result of the spill (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009, p. 225).
In contrast, “the juice that the child spilled stained the rug” is centre-embedded: although it is in active voice (the passive would be “the rug was stained by …”), we have additional information about the juice — it’s the stuff the child spilled — before we have the appearance of the sentence’s main verb, “stained.”
A left-branching sentence might be, “with rug-staining effect, the child spilled the juice” (active voice), or “with rug-staining effect, the juice was spilled by the child” (passive voice). Left-branching sentences contain extra information before the subject and verb — that is, to the left of the subject and verb, in written English.
Right-branching sentences are easier to understand than centre-embedded or left-branching sentences, and thus are perceived to be more credible (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009). Extending Alter & Oppenheimer’s summary of the research, I’d suggest that right-branching sentences are also easiest to listen to, because a listener does not have to hold extra information in their working memory while they wait for the subject + verb pairing. As such, right-branching sentences carry the lightest cognitive load.
It’s not that all your sentences must be right-branching — such simplistic constructions would begin to sound quite “see Dick run” after too much reoccurrence. For instance, Charles Euchner provides two compelling examples of well-crafted left-branching sentences that work well for both listeners and readers. Rather, my point is that left-branching sentences must be carefully constructed and edited to become clear, memorable and thus persuasive. When you are writing for speech, you must left-branch with care.
One easy way to tell if your sentences are right- or left-branching, or centre-embedded, is to read the first five to seven words of each of your sentences. Do you have a subject and verb appearing there? If you don’t have a subject and verb appearing in these few early, key words, you risk making your text harder for your listener to understand.
3. Paraphrase; don’t quote
Given the care you’ve taken to write for your listeners’ ears, it seems a shame to subvert your own hard work. Don’t quote aloud more than a few key words from written texts that were meant to be consumed visually. Instead, paraphrase and cite your favourite thinkers.