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SAYING IT… ON PAPER (3)

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Writers frequently complain that speakers "have it easy," meaning that speaking effectively is easier than writing effectively. I cannot argue with that complaint, and sometimes I have been the complainer. However, if we briefly examine some of the differences between speaking and writing, we might better understand the act of writing.
Let’s start with a few stories: Jana greets her hus band Jan when he returns home, "How was your day, dear?" As Jan takes off his coat, he mumbles something like, "Hroofgah praktoo." Jana says, "That’s nice." She is correct; he had a good day. Amazing.
Maybe it is not so amazing. All of us know why the communication worked. For one thing, they have lived together for years; they know each other inside out. For another reason, the two major channels of communication were wide open, the visual and the oral. She saw how he put down his briefcase, how he took off and hung up his coat. Jana can "read" Jan’s posture and gestures perfectly. In fact, she knows every facial expression Jan can possibly make. She can also interpret every tone of voice he can utter, even the tones that don’t make words. And Jan knows it.
The telephone rings. Jan picks it up and immediately loses the visual channel. Now he must rely only on his voice. "Hi, Jan, this is Petr (a longtime friend). How was your day?" Jan knows Petr well, but he will not say, "Hroofgah praktoo." A different audience and having only the oral channel require different manners of communication. He cannot see Petr, but Jan can "read" Petr’s tone of voice and interpret the attitude and meanings beyond the words Petr says. He can even visualize Petr’s facial expressions and predict Petr’s responses. They can respond freely to one another, and these responses compensate for the absence of the visual channel.
A story is told about the biology teacher who rejected the visual channel. He recorded his classroom lectures. He played the tapes to his 25 students so he could spend more time in the laboratory. After five of these lectures, he decided to see how his tactic was succeeding. Outside the room, he could hear his voice. When he peeked inside, he saw no students, but 25 tape recorders. The students wanted more than one channel of communication. They wanted the opportunity to ask questions; they wanted a human there, not just his voice. Only one channel was operating, but since it did not permit feedback from the students, it was not enough for satisfactory communication.
The fourth story deals with the public speech that is fully written out. Every word is set, and the speaker (or is he a reader?) may choose not to change one word of his script. His contact with the audience slowly evaporates until it is negligible. That’s why a professor of public speaking referred to the "manuscripted" speech "as an essay standing on its hind legs." He said: "A manuscripted speech is like speaking about love to your girlfriend through a hedge fence. She can hear you all right, but the contact is bad." The written speech appears to have two channels of communication operating, but neither one is operating fully. The audience can hear and see the speaker, but the speech could just as well have been put on audiotape, like the biology lectures.
From these examples, it appears that oral communication succeeds when the speakers know their listeners well, but that is also true for people writing to friends or family. The greatest distinctions between speaking and writing seem to be the immediate presence of the listeners, and the interaction between the speakers and the listeners that can direct communication towards understanding. Readers, however, are not in the presence of the writer, so their responses cannot inform or even correct the writer. In that sense, speakers do "have it easy."
Do not despair. We possess our own armory of writing techniques that can compensate for the advantages speakers enjoy. That will be the focus of next month’s essay.

RICHARD HAAS,
Oddělení studia jazyků Ústavu pro jazyk český AV ČR