Verbal versus written communication

Socratic engagement - From Wikimedia CommonsToday I’ve been contributing to a debate that was set up over at Social Me-dia on the point of blogging.  I won’t go in to details here – have a look at the conversation if you are interested in the discussion – but it has acted as a catalyst for me in a theory on verbal versus written communication.

I’ve often said that blogging facilitates socratic engagement with ideas and perspectives. But it’s not just the commentary systems implicit in blogging architecture which bring about that opportunity for critical engagement with ideas.  Long-format writing in blog posts is crucial to that process of critical thinking.  When we speak to one another at conferences or in debates, we are forced into a mode of expression which is accessible to us in real time.  Only the most quick-thinking, erudite and informed speakers can articulate perspectives clearly in those contexts.  But in written communication, there is both time and opportunity to research and support one’s ideas with relevant references.  Further, written communication, unlike verbal communication, forces the speaker to be more accountable; it provides a platform for further exploration and engagement on specific details of ideas presented, and it does so in a manner that is often inaccessible in conversation.  And ultimately, engagement with ideas in a written format enables the speaker to rehearse and develop ideas that can then be challenged in verbal communication, and iteratively improved, based on feedback.

I’ve always used written communication as a means of refining my ideas and discovering new means of communicating effectively.  The way my memory works is through auditory and verbal cues, but the way I understand systems and processes is decidedly visual.  Thus written expression is for me, a means of describing systems which I think about visually, but which I need to articulate verbally, in order to recall and to inform.  That’s just the way my brain works.

Nevertheless, as any teacher knows, we all think differently.  Some people think in a more visual fashion, whilst some use writing as a means of learning and reporting about experiences.  And some use conversation and audio-visual techniques as a means of capturing ideas and communicating them to others.  But I think for all learners, the value of written expression is in contextualising and setting the boundaries for any communication techniques.  And in being forced into a more enduring communications protocol than verbal communication, or even recorded voice, authors are concomitantly required to be as correct and succinct as possible.  Because if they fail in either accuracy or thoroughness, the validity of their argument, however it may be expressed, is compromised.

Thus while verbal communication may be the most time-efficient means of communicating, and where events and social gatherings enable a multitude of voices and perspectives to be synthesized, it is written communication that is more effective and enduring in contextualising ideas and sharpening understanding.  I guess this is why I have always valued blogging and emergent media as tools of democratic participation. Because it is these technologies that facilitate idea development and negotiated understanding, better than any preceding method of communication.

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