Writing to Be Heard Online – University Affairs


Tips for giving effective conference presentations during the pandemic.


I know how difficult it is to listen to the presentations at the Zoom conferences. What can I do to help my audience follow my speech?

– English literature

Response from Dr Editor:

Because others have already written on how to configure your workspace to present on Zoom (eg Hennessey, 2020), let’s focus specifically on writing strategies that will help you deliver a speech 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 understandable, you’ve wasted your money.

In enlightened English, as in many disciplines of the humanities, the lecture presentations are scripted and read aloud – a practice that my engineer father laments, but which offers opportunities to implement and perfect tactics that help the ear of a listener. A reader, silently looking at your words, has a very different experience from a listener: a reader can skim over or reread, can annotate, can cross-refer; an auditor must both process and understand in real time.

Writing tactics to support your listeners’ experience include:

1. Sprinkle with seeds

In Academic style elements (2014), Eric Hayot advocates a strategy that I consider seeding:

“If, for example, you know that on page 45 you are going to introduce an important concept, ‘diegetic straightness’, you can go back to previous sections of the book and sprinkle in various related or synonyms of these terms (using “Right” or “rectify” for “righteousness”, for example) in order to prepare (semi-consciously) the ears of your readers for the eventual arrival of your master term. If they encounter “diegetic righteousness” for the first time after reading phrases like: […] “Malory thus rectifies what we might consider James’ ‘diegetic error’, adjusting the narrative space to the plot goals,” they will find the new term a comfortable resolution of a concept that, in hindsight, they will recognize that it had developed over the past ten pages ”(p. 52-3).

What Dr. Hayot recommends to a reader “who will experience your work from start to finish, in a diachronic way” (p. 52), is particularly important for a listener who cannot go back or reread a passage. When we seed our new key terms, “sprinkl[ing] in various cognates or synonyms ”we are preparing a listener’s ears for the term which will later appear fully developed.

And psychological research evidence suggests that listeners are not just better able to understand the words that have been sown in this way: they may also be more likely to believe that a concept is truer when it is more easily understood. . As Alter & Oppenheimer (2009) argue, “fluidity [that is, the ease with which people process information in their brains] is a general mechanism that influences judgments of truth ”(p. 228). And because the texts that contain words that are disfluent – which are unfamiliar or difficult to pronounce – are more difficult to process, the content of these texts is less likely to be believed (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009).

In short: do you want to persuade your audience of the merits of your claims? Help them believe you by getting them to understand your key terms.

2. Give preference to branching sentences on the right

The branched sentences on the right are active vocal sentences in which additional details about the action come after – that is, in written English, to the right of – the subject and the verb. For example, “the child spilled the juice that stained the carpet” is a straight-branched sentence: we have our active voice subject + verb (“the child” + “spilled”), followed by a little more information about what was spilled. , followed by a little more information on the outcome of the spill (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009, p. 225).

On the other hand, “the juice that the child spilled stained the carpet” is embedded in the center: although he is in the active voice (the passive would be “the carpet was stained by …”), we have information extra on the juice – this is the thing the kid spilled – before we have the appearance of the main verb in the sentence, “stained”.

A left branch sentence could be: “with the carpet coloring effect, the child spilled the juice” (active voice) or “with the carpet coloring effect, the juice was spilled by the child” (passive voice ). Sentences branched to the left contain additional information before the subject and the verb, that is, to the left of the subject and the verb, in written English.

Right-branched sentences are easier to understand than central or left-branched sentences, and are therefore perceived to be more believable (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009). Extending Alter & Oppenheimer’s research summary, I would suggest that straight-branched sentences are also the easiest to listen to, as a listener does not have to keep additional information in their working memory while it waits for the subject + verb pairing. As such, straight branched sentences carry the lightest cognitive load.

It’s not that all of your sentences have to branch out to the right – such simplistic constructions would start to seem like enough “to see Dick running” after too many repetitions. For example, Charles Euchner proposes two convincing examples of well-crafted left-branching sentences that work well for listeners and readers. On the contrary, my point is that sentences with left ramifications must be carefully constructed and edited to become clear, memorable and therefore persuasive. When writing for the floor, you should pay attention to the left branch.

An easy way to tell if your sentences are branched right or left, or embedded in the center, is to read the first five to seven words of each of your sentences. Is there a subject and a verb? If you don’t have a subject and verb in those first few keywords, you risk making your text more difficult for your listener to understand.

3. Paraphrase; do not quote

Considering the care you’ve taken to write for the ears of your listeners, it seems a shame to subvert your own hard work. Do not quote aloud more than a few key words from written texts intended for visual consumption. Instead, paraphrase and quote your favorite thinkers.

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