Monday, July 16, 2007

Speaking in Coherent Paragraphs (again)

My recent observation about Andrew Keen's "ability to speak in coherent paragraphs" has made me more aware of the communicative skills of others when facing an ostensibly intelligent audience. My own words revived in my consciousness yesterday while I was watching a recording I had made (again from Book TV) of Dennis Ross talking about his book Statecraft. From the very beginning of his talk, Ross made it clear that the very concept of "statecraft" was far to subtle to be neatly wrapped up in a few "take-away" clichés. Consequently, the entirety of his talk, prior to taking questions from the audience, was designed to familiarize the audience with the concept without either reducing it to triviality or drowning it in complexity. Ross is one of those rare speakers who seems to have no urge to "perform" (in the showy sense of the word); he believe that the center of attention should be his topic material, rather than himself. I do not think I can say this about many lecturers. Even Keen seems to know how to deliver the right amount of performance when administering his logic; and, for all my admiration of the man's ideas, I doubt that anyone would accuse Harold Bloom of scrimping on the performance factor!

The other thing that struck me about Ross was his (possibly intuitive) command of text type theory. Ross approaches his subject through the text type of description. This means, at least for me, that he sets up a representational framework for the concept and then proceeds to develop each of the components of that framework. Each such development is basically expository, which, for me, is a matter of situating the component in a suitable context. That context, in turn, can be established through the remaining two text types. Argumentation is invoked when the context is a matter of examining evidence and justifying conclusions drawn from that process of examination. However, since Ross' qualification to speak on the concept of statecraft in the first place is grounded on his personal experiences in practices of diplomacy, he can also establish context through narrative accounts of those experiences.

The result was a truly compelling lecture that "spoke for itself" without any "cheap tricks" of rhetorical performance. Of course the structure was sufficiently elaborate that I strongly doubt that it was delivered extemporaneously. Most likely Ross had prepared a text in advance; so there was an element of performance. I suppose, then, that what I am really trying to say is that the performance element was sufficiently subdued that the prepared text was neither tedious nor overwhelming. At the conclusion of this portion of the event, I was ready to go out an read Ross' book, which, I suppose, was the primary motive behind his preparing this talk in the first place!

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