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Guide on the Side - A Communication Skill Suite: Speaking, Writing and Graphics

By Marie Wallace, Published on June 1, 1998


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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: ax852@lafn.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.

Exercise

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.

Characteristic

Speech

Writing

Graphics

Images    

X

Word Images

X

 

X

Words

X

X

 
Received via eyes

X

X

X

Received via ears

X

   
Clarity  

X

X

Complexity  

X

X

Call to action

X

 

X

Abstract ideas  

X

X

Details  

X

X

Speed of comprehension    

X

Length of time remembered    

X

Permanence  

X

X

Audience input

X

   
Conveying your persona

X

   
Requires a common language

X

X

 

Common Communication Pitfalls

Exercise

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

Written

Spoken

Left brain Right brain
Language of information Language of persuasion
Logical Analogical (metaphors)
Linear Branching
Dispassionate Passionate
Formal Informal
Individual, interior experience Group, exterior experience
Single sense Multisensory
Eye to brain Ear and eye to brain
Permanent Transitory
Impersonal Personal
Sequential Associative
Detailed Gestalt
Analytical Anecdotal
Facts Patterns
Planned Spontaneous
Two dimensional (2D) Three dimensional (3D)
Easy to recycle Recyclable when recorded but loses a dimension
Portable Fixed location
Updating is slow Updating is quick
Static Dynamic and interactive
Inflexible Flexible
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

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:

Typography (selection, variation and size of type)
Legibility
Focal point
Hierarchy
Page/screen layout
Color
Amount of and location of white space
Page, paragraph and section breaks
Headers, footers and styles
Justification, word and line spacing, hyphenation
Numbering and finding systems
Choice of format
Memo, e-mail, report, proposal, handbook, newsletter, brochure, policy, procedure, job aid, instruction, documentation, article, book

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.