Guide on the Side - A Communication Skill Suite: Speaking, Writing and GraphicsBy Marie Wallace, Published on June 1, 1998
Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).
Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are ample instructional opportunities to learn speaking, writing and graphic skills but almost none to master coordinated use of all three. Savvy communicators know when to orchestrate the trio and alternately how to make strategic selections. In essence, they know how to communicate tri-lingually, aware that each skill in the suite has its unique best uses and that each is assimilated by the audience in a different part of the brain. Information and knowledge providers using the communication suite skillfully will deliver focused and user-friendly content to their customers.
Characteristics of the Three Modes of Communication
Spoken language is an image-based idiom involving words and is best used to persuade, motivate and express emotion. It tends to flow from personal experience, be simply structured and often is grammatically fractured. (Anyone who has transcribed a speech for publication is humbled by the experience.) Written language is a word-based idiom and best used to express thought, abstract ideas, complexity and details. It tends to be linear, logical, objective, permanent and grammatically correct. Graphics are image-based using line, form, shape, pattern, texture, color and a predominately non-word vocabulary to capture actions and ideas. Words used in graphics function as elements of a picture.
Compare the content of the written paragraph above with the content of the graphic below as an exercise in assessing the nuances between spoken and graphic communication.
Common Communication Pitfalls
- Reading a written text as a substitute for delivering an oral presentation. The speaker forfeits the persuasive power of the spoken language. Conviction, excitement, and personal charisma are lost. In their place are dispassionate analysis and dull detail.
- Presenting an involved proposal without complementary written and graphic material. The decision-maker drowns in facts and complexity, and thinks of little except escape.
- Reciting detailed quantitative information in a speech when a comparative metaphor, such as "as big as a footfall field," would convey the picture.
- Using presentation technology so the speaker is hidden from the audience by screens or darkness or reading text from the screen that the audience can read three times faster.
- Training or teaching a multi-cultural staff without using graphics for clarification. Universally-understood pictures, drawings, or charts can replace hours of explaining.
- Forgetting to use graphics to distinguish things beyond the audience's experience.
- Using presentation software to display the speaker's script rather than to present ideas graphically.
- Designing slides and Web pages on linear rather than graphic principles.
- Mechanically decorating text with clip art instead of graphically showing relationships.
Use the Written and Spoken Language chart below to determine whether to use spoken or written communication for a specific purpose (train, teach, motivate, report, persuade, lead, manage or orientate). Then check the results against the list of When to Use Graphics. How would you pair them for balance? When would you use all three? Which do you favor?
Written and Spoken Language Compared
|Left brain||Right brain|
|Language of information||Language of persuasion|
|Individual, interior experience||Group, exterior experience|
|Eye to brain||Ear and eye to brain|
|Two dimensional (2D)||Three dimensional (3D)|
|Easy to recycle||Recyclable when recorded but loses a dimension|
|Updating is slow||Updating is quick|
|Static||Dynamic and interactive|
|Humor used cautiously||Humor used often|
|Audience unseen and unidentified||Audience seen and identified|
|Audience feedback is slow||Audience feedback is immediate|
When to Use Graphics
- Compare events in time and space
- Illustrate an idea, concept or principle
- Show a step-by-step action or procedure
- Suggest "the big picture"
- Show hierarchy and organizational relationships
- Identify a specific person, place or product
- Show relation of parts to whole
- Present correlation between variables
- Indicate sequence
- Demonstrate size and proportion
- Map and navigate physical spaces
- Show direction or route
Communication Clues Are Where You Find Them
When you wonder what a printed word means, you go to the dictionary. Clues for the meaning of spoken words include the speaker's face and body, pauses, intonation and the audience's reaction. Research indicates that the spoken message is about 93% non-verbal and only 7% verbal. A speaker's gestures, body language and vocal variety can color words sufficiently to completely alter their meaning.
By contrast, written language is 60% based on the words and 40% based on the non-verbal format features. Words are more important but two-fifths of the meaning in written documents comes from the look, created by:
When the meaning of a graphic is not immediately understood, the reader goes to the accompanying text or asks the speaker for clarification. Communicators should be aware that readers' eyes go immediately to the graphic on a page containing both graphics and text. This means when the graphic is at the bottom of the page after text, the text may not be read. Hook the reader with the graphic first and then follow with an explanation.
An excellent example of how the "communication suite" functions is in the Mar/Apr 1998 issue of ASTD's Technical Training, where Peggy Tampson lists 36 Management Competencies on page 13. Written communication skills are described as a "thinking, analytical" competency and oral communication skills are listed as an "energy, dynamism" competency. Interestingly, there is no visual literacy or graphics competency designation but a very clear and concise graphic at the top of the page accompanies her article. The author demonstrates her graphic competency but fails to articulate it. This is why trial lawyers often have witnesses show acts graphically rather than describe them verbally.