Thursday, October 27, 2016

The 'bigly' problem, from Lincoln to Trump: Is your speech being heard?

Famed political campaign message maven Frank Luntz says "It's not what you say that counts. It's what people hear." That came to mind recently when I saw that linguists think Donald Trump may be saying "big league" rather than the "bigly" that people keep hearing. But now historian David Gissen has applied that principle to one of the great speeches, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, with interesting results.

In Listening to a speech, among large crowds, in an open landscape, in the mid-19th century, Gissen describes his experiment, which attempted to recreate digitally the conditions under which the Gettysburg Address was delivered and heard or misheard. Using a recording of today that used the "official" text as its basis, he used a digital audio workstation to simulate how that speech would sound when delivered in an open landscape with crowd noises. Then he simulated how it would be heard from 40 feet to 100 feet away from the speaker. Finally, he used speech-to-text recognition software to capture what might have been heard at those distances, making adjustments in vocabulary to suit the language of the day.

The resulting "environmental translations" of the speech appear in the opening of his article about the experiment...and I recommend you take the time to compare them, perhaps reading each one aloud. They vary quite a bit from the speech so familiar to so many, and it's a stunning to realize just how different the hearing experience may have been for various audience members. (Not examined in this effort was the impact that regional dialects--those of the speaker and those of the audience members--may have had on hearing and understanding.)

Gissen points out that the address was a much more fluid text than the one we recite today, and that more than six transcriptions were published after the speech took place, all with different areas of emphasis and all contributing in part to the official version:
In the weeks following his delivery of this speech, Lincoln reviewed various transcriptions and decided which of the transcribed versions of the dedication would be the official Gettysburg Address that we know today. However, as a read and unrecorded speech, originally listened to by an audience of thousands, the address was and is not the stable document that we monumentalize today.  
“Listening to a speech” emphasizes the address as a fluctuating document read in a large landscape to thousands of people and that reflected on themes of death, sacrifice and war. With its similarities and differences to what we understand of the original, the environmental translations shown above also emphasize language as something that can record a representation of sound and space, much like a phonographic recording. It is a representation of the struggle to listen among crowds and at a distance and the fragile, unpredictable aspects of listening and apprehending any spoken language.
This is a highly unusual look at whether speeches are heard, using technology, ironically, to take us back to a time before microphones and speakers and all the other aids we use to make sure speakers are heard today. Those mics and amplifiers are, of course, still imperfect tools, and audiences hear and mishear speakers despite all the tech support. That "struggle to listen" still takes place every time a speaker clears her throat and begins a talk.

For today's speaker, it's important to remember that volume isn't the only tool that helps audiences hear you. Your speed counts almost as much, and slowing down will improve the level of comprehension among your listeners--particularly when you are speaking in their second language, but also when you and the audience have the same first language.

You can read more about the impact of technology on the history of public speaking in my article for Toastmaster magazine.

I'm grateful Michael Erard pointed me to this unusual look at a speech we think we know.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by eltpics)

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