of speaking and listening, making the most of gathered encounters

I have been thinking about those moments we gather and hear someone speak. There are all sorts of moments - speeches at weddings and birthdays, academic papers, bibles, prayers and sermons in church, poetry readings, theatre, storytelling, a singer telling stories between songs in a live set.

I think gathering together to hear someone speak is one of the most profound modes of communication available to us.

In an age in which multiple modes of communication are available for our use, we can stay connected across geographical distances in particular like never before. This has meant that new friendships I've established at conferences, gatherings and retreats in the USA, Australia and Europe in recent years have continued after the initial few days or a week together, when they may not have if letter writing had been our only option for continuing communication (some of them would have, most of these folk are writers or storytellers after all, but bear with me for the sake of the argument!). It also means that I am in regular - with some, almost daily - contact with family and friends from home after moving to the other side of the world. That wouldn't have been the case in another era, certainly.

In an age in which we have many, many ways in which to communicate with each other, many tools to aid in communication, why does standing before a gathering and speaking (or indeed, gathering together with friends), in my opinion, still hold the most potential for profound and meaningful communication?

I think it is in the embodied nature of the encounter - when these moments reach their potential, it is because we bring our whole selves to the encounter, encapsulated in our bodies physically present with each other. The mind stimulated by all the senses we experience through our body. The emotions stirred, felt and expressed by bodies. The physicality of a voice coming from the inner being of a person right here with us; the physicality of ears and eyes right before us receiving the words we speak as we speak them. The communication that happens through the gestures and expressions of our bodies. There is a wholeness to these gathered encounters that is not experienced when we watch television or film, speak through a phone or Skype, email, text, write a letter: all these encounters are mediated by something else.

There is an immediacy to the gathered encounter in which we give and take in the moment, of our very selves. In gathered encounters we experience the mutuality of human being - something is given and it is received in that very moment. The speaker gives of his/her self in offering a speech or story or poem; the audience receive the gift of story or poem and the gift of the person speaking. The audience give to the speaker a welcome for their self, their story; the speaker receives a gift that affirms and nurtures her/his very being.

Such encounters are real, live - we are alive and present to each other in our living, whole, beings.

There is a creativity to the gathered encounter - we create something unique, unrepeatable, as we give and receive together. We create a story to tell and we create or recreate ourselves, never leaving these encounters unchanged.

Speaking to an audience 

So when you stand before a gathering to speak, what can you do to make the most of the potential of that encounter?

Look people in the eye. Connect. Acknowledge the gift of this moment that is physical embodied presence with each other.

If you have notes or script to help you remember what you want to say, know the content of those notes well so that the page does not come between you and your audience to break your connection.

Speak from the heart. By which I mean several things:
know what you are communicating and care about what you have to say to these people here, now;
speak with feeling, for emotions expressed and felt in the embodied encounter are a gift not experienced through other modes of communication in this immediate and mutual way;
use your range of expression, embrace silence between words, move in ways that support your message;
pay attention to pace and volume and articulate clearly.

Listening to a speaker

When you gather to hear another speak, what can you do to make the most of the potential of that encounter?

Make yourself comfortable, sitting or standing, before the speaker begins - not shuffling uncomfortably will lessen distractions for the speaker, will enhance your ability to give attention to the speaker.

Meet the speaker in the eye. Connect. Acknowledge the gift of this moment that is physical embodied presence with each other.

If there is a program or handout, look at it before the speaker begins, then put it away; rustling paper disrupts the moment, the connection between audience and speaker.

If you listen well by having your hands occupied, choose an activity that will require minimal fidgeting that might disrupt the connection for others.

Listen with openness and attentiveness, receiving the gift of the message from the speaker, and giving a gift in return, the welcoming of their voice, presence, story, self.

We have many ways in which to communicate, but still, we gather in theatres, lecture halls, churches, pubs and clubs : because we are embodied beings, because we experience the fulness of our being together with others.

And if you are speaking in front of an audience, if you are a member of an audience, remember that this moment is a gift treat that gift with the care and attention it deserves and be present, wholly, fully, generously, with each other.


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