Essential Silence

Chris Friend (@chris_friend) teaches first-year writing classes, manages Hybrid Pedagogy, produces the podcast HybridPod, and needs to give his personal website its first facelift in three years. He lives near Tampa, Florida, USA.

flickr photo by Thomas Leuthard http://flickr.com/photos/thomasleuthard/8660104345 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

flickr photo by Thomas Leuthard http://flickr.com/photos/thomasleuthard/8660104345 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

(Audio version by Chris embedded at the end of this post.)

I attended a funeral last month. I wanted to speak, but I couldn’t — not for the lump in my throat or the tears in my eyes or any of the affective, funereal reasons. No, I didn’t speak because of logistics. When the officiant asked for volunteers to step forward and offer their remembrances, she made eye contact with That One Brave Soul who said before-hand that she would talk. Once she was at the podium, the speaker dazzled us by donning a feather boa and a festive costume hat (the deceased loved Halloween). The speaker made us laugh with character descriptions that were just on the truthful side of slanderous. She made us cry with confessions of missed opportunities to share her feelings in time.

Then she stepped down from the podium, and The Silence set in.

We’ve all seen it. We’ve been in rooms that are awkward and pensive, where people are contemplating what, when, and whether to speak. Or we’ve been in rooms where the general noise of chatter inexplicably fades to momentary silence, shattered by shards of tension-releasing self-conscious laughter. Or perhaps we’ve attended a concert where the applause holds off for a moment or two after the final note fades away. That one moment — that pause, that stillness, that calm before the storm — is electric, filled with anticipation, bursting with emotional awareness.

When the funeral service was afflicted by The Silence, the officiant decided to keep things moving. She took the silence as a lack of participation. For many in the audience, it may have been time they needed to build their confidence or their composure. I was waiting for the right moment, and for a couple more ideas to fall into place, before offering my thoughts. But that “right moment” never came; the officiant moved along without me.

And that’s the trouble with group conversations and speech: Timing is everything. The way we build in and work with natural pauses in our thinking and storytelling can help or hinder the audience in profound ways.

Readers can create those pauses whenever they need; they simply stop reading for a moment. One strategically placed finger lets a reader take all the time they want to think, to process, to digest, to respond, to take notes, or do practically anything else before returning to the same spot and resuming the story.

Listeners, though, especially those listening to material being broadcast, don’t have that same ability. Pausing the radio isn’t as simple. And while pausing a podcast is technically simple, it may be difficult — many people listen to podcasts while driving or doing other things that keep their hands busy at the time. Recorded audio is like conversation with an invisible — but very present — audience. We have to keep their needs, their thinking, and their timing in mind. That means adding a pause when the audience needs time to process. Or repeating something if it’s easy to miss on the first go-around. Teachers do this all the time with their live, in-person classes. But authors/composers owe their future audiences the same consideration.

With both text and audio, the pacing of what we say has to be carefully crafted to help the audience process what we’re saying. Marks of punctuation serve critical roles in helping readers understand the flow of our words and ideas, providing stage direction and speed limits for our inner voice to navigate. Working with audio, though, the speaker has almost exclusive control over that navigation, and we cannot forget that responsibility.

Audio is far more intimate than text. The vibrations of our vocal chords shake the air that shakes a microphone. Recreations of that sound through speakers or headphones then shake the air that then shakes listener’s eardrums. As Anne Fernald explained in the “Musical Language” episode of the podcast Radiolab, “sound is kind of touch…at a distance.” The more we talk, the more we share that touch with our audience. But sometimes, we have to slow down, to back off, to give our audience space.

This is something I often struggle with as I create episodes of HybridPod, the podcast extension of Hybrid Pedagogy. (Coincidentally, HybridPod grew from an experiment I conducted during DigiWriMo 2014. But I digress.) When I interview people for the episodes, our conversations follow a natural rhythm, pausing and accelerating as needed. But when I edit the conversations together into a single story, I have to consciously include the right amount of time for where breaths and thoughtful contemplation should go. When I create an audio story, I have to create space for the audience’s reaction. I really have to attend to the timing needs of my future listeners.

Even though I still struggle to create the right pacing, I want to provide a simple example of how quickly silence can draw attention to itself and how effectively it can be used.

In an episode of 99% Invisible (a podcast about design, architecture, and the built world around us), producer Roman Mars helped a reporter describe the structure of CitiCorp Tower, a building that was the centerpiece of the episode. Mars tells about several unexpected features of the building, making it sound like the thing shouldn’t be able to exist. The design sounds magical…or physically impossible, with structural supports in the middle of walls, rather than their corners, and with massive amounts of open air beneath the solid mass of the building. He ends the setup this way:

“It does not look sturdy. But it’s gotta be sturdy. It’s gotta be safe, or they wouldn’t have built it this way…right?”

That momentary pause, that fleeting hesitation — the one I’ve represented with an ellipsis — lasts only a fraction of a second, but it’s enough time for listeners to stop, take notice, and predict that the worried “Right?” is coming. For a show all about design, questioning the safety of a structure is kind of a big deal. (The episode’s title is “Structural Integrity” for that very reason.) That pause allows just enough time for listeners to reach the kinds of conclusions and skepticism and discomfort that the reporters want at that moment in the story. Basically, at just over two minutes in, they wind us up. Then they spend another twenty minutes bringing us back down again.

Things can unfold in the opposite direction, as well. Audio stories can be so personal, so intimate, and so raw that they unavoidably evoke a visceral reaction from listeners.  Uncomfortable or unpleasant stories take an emotional toll on us, and we need time and opportunity to regain our composure.

I recall one episode of Radiolab — a podcast I respect and admire — that included a segment about “yellow rain” containing a deeply unsettling interview in which the interviewee was brought to tears by difficult subject matter and inappropriately callous interviewing practices, and she called off the rest of the conversation. The producers knew her frustration and breakdown were hard to listen to, so they included five full seconds of complete silence after the interview concluded to help listeners recover. Those five seconds of “dead air” — an eternity for audio producers — were an essential means for showing respect to the anguished voices in the show and to give listeners an opportunity to grieve and recover before moving ahead with new ideas. The audience needed that time to process, and any sounds would have shattered the moment.

Silence isn’t only for emotional recovery. As with the flexible, nuanced pacing of everyday conversations, silence in audio recordings serves a variety of purposes. A few that come to mind:

  • Adds suspense
  • Shows discomfort (say, of an interviewee at a pressing question)
  • Provides transition from one thought/segment to the next
  • Emphasizes intensity
  • Encourages others to participate/speak
  • Allows listeners time to process

That last point can be crucial. It’s a gesture of compassion for listeners if the storyteller slows down for a bit. After a particularly intense moment (emotionally or intellectually), a pause allows listeners to finish their thinking about a segment, reach their conclusions, and “gather their thoughts”. Anyone who has helped another person learn something new has seen the importance of a well-timed pause to allow things to “sink in”. As you write/create, remember to allow for those moments in your audience, too. In whatever you’re writing this month, pay a little extra attention to the pacing, the punctuation, or the pauses. What’s not there can at times be even more helpful than what is. Embrace the silence and let it speak for you.

“No word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” — Mark Twain

We hope you will share your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #DigiWriMo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.

Your Voice: Another Dimension

Wendy Taleo (@wentale): I’ve got a curiosity that keeps me coming back for more. For DigiWriMo I’m ready for anything. I’m looking forward to connecting with the DigiWriMo community. My guest post is focussed on adding your voice to your writing and my other ongoing investigation is around the human aspect of writing and learning online. I’m happy when trying out new tech tools or new ways of doing things. I have a geeky side, poetry side, crafty side, funny bone and human side (*phew*). Apart from Twitter my blogging is split between here and here.

 Coloured bubbles of liquid

flickr photo by Cyberslayer http://flickr.com/photos/cyberslayer/3757514403 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

What Am I?

Insulator

by Wendy Taleo 2015

 

 

I am made of British Porcelain

Travelled to Australia circa 1870

I hang out on the top of poles

I am a terrible conductor but with me

Your message goes the distance

Incoming Message

 

 

 

I am

an insulator used in The Overland Telegraph
“one of the greatest engineering feats”

Listen to this post here (7 mins)

Telegraph

Early 18th century: from French télégraphe, from télé- ‘at a distance’ + -graphe ‘written’

The Oxford Dictionary definition of the telegraph (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/telegraph) is applicable as I am writing this at a distance, to go a distance. It must have been amazing in 1872 to finally be able to send a message from Southern Australia to Darwin (3,200km) and across the continents to England in a matter of hours instead of months. As I tap this out on the glass like surface of a tablet the digitally enhanced clicking of the keys reminds me of sending pulses down the wire. Some of the 36,000 overland telegraph poles still stand in the desert lands as a silent monument to the lives of many that built and maintained this form of communication.

While we have dulled our sense of wonderment of such things, it’s still incredible to me that this article could be read all around the world from the time it’s published. Digital writing has gone well beyond only the urgent and important messages and now gives our stories freedom to be shared across the seas.

In hospital with a fractured finger and arm [I pick up the phone to record] I wonder how I can do my blog post for Digital Writing Month. I think about Simon Ensor’s post where he decides to record first and then transcribe as a way of making sense.

In order to really grasp what is going on, I resort to typing out transcripts of my audio captures.” Simon Ensor, 2015.

I find that my thoughts are not joined or developed enough (or maybe that was the pain killers working) but it did allow me to record ideas while eating my hospital lunch. I’m recovering at home now and it’s time to put these ideas together.

There are many ways to add sounds to two dimensional writing and to the online learning experience. In this post I’m concentrating on the most available and low tech tool – our voice. The journal article by Ozubko and MacLeod (2010) suggests a concept called a ‘production effect’. This shows a ‘substantial benefit to memory of having studied information aloud as opposed to silently’. They looked at people’s memory recall of items from a list of words after reading half a list silently and half a list out loud.  By speaking the words rather than just silently reading it the brain can recollect these items better. The produced text can stand out from the crowd of words that we read. By using our own voice to read aloud we can activate the words, make them distinctive and add another dimension to our learning.

What happens when we record our digital writing? Is it important to do so?

One benefit is the concentration required as we are aware of the collection of our voices ‘on record’. We can play it back and perhaps read along with it (that brings back memories of broadcast sing-alongs in school). It’s also available to share and our communication net is widened. More than just an accessibility function the recording of texts can play a critical part in developing writing.

Hearing your own writing brought to ‘life’ adds another dimension. In this recent example, Maha Abdelmoneim chose to record a reading of a blog post. On listening to her recording she said:

mahatweet

The sharing of the recording had impact not only on the author but others that listened. I listened to this before I saw the original post and it stayed with me. Kevin Hodgson commented: kevintweet

When I asked the author, Simon Ensor, whether he would change anything of the original piece after hearing the reading he said:

wendy tweet

Remix is another dimension that we can add to our writing. Visual, audio, video, more writing – it’s another way to examine our thoughts from a different angle.

From the forthcoming book chapter entitled “Academic Writing as Aesthetics Applied: Creative use of Technology to Support Multisensory Learning” (Lian, Kell, & Koo Yew Lie. 2015) this quote struck a chord with me.

The way we write is reflected in the way in which we speak written texts. Writing is not separate from the spoken text, nor are the prosodic structures simply pasted onto the writing in order to create spoken text. (Lian et al. 2015)

The study used a mechanism of examining the recordings of students reading their own academic writings as a way of improving their writing. The report concluded:

Students, therefore, are likely to benefit from tools that tap into their multisensory meaning-making systems and enable them to examine, in more than one way the communicative impact of their own texts. (Lian et al. 2015)

This is what we can strive for by using audio in the online context. Make it multisensory, make it more available to the mysterious process of sensemaking for each individual.

Woodblock

In this work I took words from a video transcript and turned them into sound. See the process for this exercise in this post. Does this add any value to the sense making? While it was fun to do and it may have some artistic application, it would need a decoder for this to assist with any communicative impact of the original message (like the Morse code/decoder process). The following examples are more in line with the ability of sound, in particular the voice, to enhance, create and aid sense making.

Mindful: Mary Oliver

In this collaborative work started by Scott Glass, I wrote a poem and later returned to record a number of segments written by others. I also recorded my own poem and linked it on the Padlet wall. The authors that I recorded felt ‘honoured’ that I had spent the time to do this. In the online world we can suffer that all encompassing malaise of silence from our digital writing. By recording the written word I could add another dimension to this already multifaceted work.

Armchair travel

http://etalesandstories.tumblr.com/post/123531901825/armchair-travels-scene-setting

In this example the recordings came first. The #adhocvoices project as part of the Connected Learning MOOC 2015 (#clmooc) encouraged participants to record their voice or environment as a way to connect with others. There were four recordings that I chose. They were immediate, evocative, environmental and from various corners of the world. I used this sensory input and wrote a poem to tie them all together.

Horizon

A beach at sunset with the words of the haiku

Perhaps my favourite example of multisensory work is Horizon – A Journey in 5 Parts where I take a haiku poem through a few different iterations and collaborate with others to add sound and visuals.

An Inspiration: Make Writing … Digital

I’ve shared the above works as examples of how to add your voice to your digital writing. A mixed bag of ideas, for sure. What you do depends on what you might like to achieve.

  • Do you want to make a piece of writing more memorable? Read it aloud. Do you want to honour the author in some way? Record and share it.
  • Do you want to improve your academic writing? Read your own text aloud, record it and listen to it.
  • Need some inspiration? Listen to a recording or sound track and then write your story.
  • Have a story but not in a place to write it down? Record it and transcribe later.

Until we figure out how to transcribe touch and smell into 1’s and 0’s we can use our voice to tap into our multisensory system and help the learning process. Use your voice and add another dimension to your learning.

We hope you will share your work across the various Digital Writing Month spaces that you inhabit. That could be right here at the Digital Writing Month blog; at your own blog or writing space; on Twitter with the #DigiWriMo hashtag; in the DigiWriMo Google Plus Community; at the DigiWriMo Facebook page; or wherever you find yourself writing digitally.

References

Lian, A.B., Kell, P. & Koo Yew Lie. (2015, forthcoming). Challenges in global learning: International contexts and cross-disciplinary perspectives. Cambridge Scholars Publishers, Cambridge, UK.

Markman, A. (2010) Say it loud: I’m creating a distinctive memory.

Ozubko, J. D., & MacLeod, C. M. (2010). The Production Effect in Memory: Evidence That Distinctiveness Underlies the Benefit. Journal Of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory & Cognition, 36(6), 1543-1547.

The Overland Telegraph

Working Out Loud: Listening To What We Write

By Sarah Honeychurch

A close up photo of a Soundcraft Series Five 56 channel mixer at Vineyard Columbus

flickr photo by fensterbme shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

As we go about our day to day lives, we are surrounded by sound. Often we take this for granted, and although we hear the sounds, we forget to listen to them.  And, likewise, when we publish our digital writings all too often we limit these writings to typed words and digital images – we forget to add the power of sound. When an author speaks her words out loud it adds a whole extra layer of meaning to her message; when a musician puts his words to music he gives them a new interpretation; when we select a melody to accompany our moving images we elevate them to a different level.  We are creatures who talk, who listen, who sing, as well as creatures who think and write – and it is important to remember that during our digital explorations.

What We Have In Store This Week

This week, for Digital Writing Month, we are focussing on the ways in which we can use sounds in order to enhance or translate our written words and digital images.

We hope you keep your ears open. Listen to the way that voices help to tell a story. Think about the ways that sounds and tunes can be used to change the ambience of your words. Which sounds form the backdrop to your everyday life – which ones do you love and which to you dislike?  Which ones are so familiar to you that you barely notice them, and which would you miss if you could never hear them again? As I type this the Jayhawks are playing in the background and I can hear my cats crunching on their evening meal – sounds that mean Saturday evening to me. Which sounds define you and what you do?

Our Guides On This Audio Adventure

Our guest contributors this week, and the source for each post’s Daily Inspiration, include:

  • Ron Leunissen, who explains how his passion for creating digital media was inspired by DS106.
  • Simon Ensor, who talks about messing around with sound.
  • Wendy Taleo, who talks about how sounds can bring two dimensional writing to life.
  • Chris Friend, who reminds us of the importance of the pause and silence when we write.

And you. You are also guest contributors. We invite you to open your mouths and ears this week and get excited by the power of sound.  Get inspired to share your creations with the Digital Writing Month community. Collaborate with others if that’s something you like to do.

International Working Out Loud Week

By a strange coincidence, as we move into thinking about audio during Digital Writing Month, we discovered that November 16th – 23rd is also International Working Out Loud Week (#WolWeek). I’m not exactly sure what this is – I think it’s actually about sharing work with a community at an early stage and getting feedback about it, but what a lovely bit of serendipity it is that we have found out about it.

Make Some Noise: Voicing Our Written Words

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Writers should talk more. We write to make ourselves heard. We use writing to tell a story, contribute to conversations, add our voices to a chorus, raise the alarm against injustice, call for help. Readers, then, look for a strong voice from authors or get emotional over a text that speaks to them. In each of these cases, text evokes a sound. Indeed, the very word audience originates from the Latin word meaning “to hear”, same as audio. Writing allows us, in a fashion, to hear words and language. As we read, we recreate what the words might sound like, rather than exactly how they sounded to the writer. Reading transforms print into sound, even if it’s all internal.

This is a call for authors to make more noise with their writing. I mean that literally: Use vocal sounds to convey words, not just text. Let readers become listeners. Tell your story to their ears—spoken word demands a synchrony of attention that written words cannot duplicate. When confronted with written text, we can skip, skim, scan, and speed-read. With audible speech, we can skip to a different spot in a recording, but we lose all the content we skipped; there’s no way to get an overview of spoken text. While at first this may seem a limitation, I believe the opposite: Spoken text offers an opportunity for a richer involvement with the text than the printed word can. Jonathan Sircy will discuss this idea in the context of teachers reviewing student papers in an upcoming article on Hybrid Pedagogy. In it, he will explain how listening to student work creates a more genuine appreciation of student texts.

Writing teachers, especially those in K-12 schools, often work to help their students develop a voice in their writing. (I would argue that academic writing is often specifically intended to eliminate that voice, but that’s an issue for another time.) Writers who express their voice use words distinctly and purposefully, crafting a unique style recognizable as their own. But why do we limit ourselves like this? Our perception of writing should expand to include the spoken, not just the written, word. We deserve to hear one another’s meaning.

The sound of language helps readers. I’ve been an avid fan of audiobooks for decades; my blind grandfather got me hooked on them, often bragging that he could read a book while doing the dishes while those who used their eyes to read couldn’t pull off the same trick. Audiobooks take the written word back to the oral tradition of storytelling, allowing the narrator to infuse the text with expressiveness and emotion that, for all the wonder of written language, is nonetheless challenging to capture in print. Think how much texture and richness are added to poetry when it’s read aloud. The sound of words endows language with beauty and meaning. Those of us who read books with our ears hold a dual-layer appreciation for the text, and it baffles me when people claim—as I often hear—that listening to an audiobook isn’t “real” reading. Listening to text is more real than reading it.

I’m also a huge fan of podcasts, listening to them in my car any time I don’t have an audiobook queued up. Unlike traditional radio programs, which require an audience to listen at the same time as the program is broadcast, podcasts allow the audience to listen to a program on their own schedule, with a caveat: The program still takes the same amount of time to listen to regardless of when it is played back. Timing is integral to audio programs; good programs captivate audiences with well-timed narrative and keep listeners involved in the audible world they present.

Speaking of timing, silence is underrated. When we tell stories to our friends, we pause at certain points and rush at others, to help deliver the story the way we intend. Audible storytellers need to keep in mind that their audiences might need a moment for something to sink in. Silence is also a foreign concept for people who work in text. While paragraph breaks or visual dividers do a little to affect the speed at which readers experience writing, there is no way with the written word to force readers to stop and ponder an idea. Audio, though, needs to account for necessary time to think. Audio storytellers need to embrace silence on occasion so that listeners can digest.

Audible texts create an intimacy that doesn’t exist in print. This document is a call for more of that intimacy. The spoken word works because the speaker makes vibrations in the air, which then tickle follicles of hair in the listener’s ear. Even if that sound is recorded by microphone, translated to 1s and 0s, saved as an audio file, transmitted over the internet, and played back through a set of headphones, whoever first spoke the words in that recording ultimately affected the listener in a physical way: Spoken words move people. As Anne Fernald put it in an episode of Radiolab, “sound is…touch at a distance.” I challenge you to do more to touch your audience more intentionally. Let’s get intimate with our words.

Take out your microphones, raise your voice, and make some noise.


[Photo, “Abstracted”, by Fio licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.]