Why Oral Is Awesome

Us librarian types, we’re all about literacy, and we all acknowledge the power of the written word. Writing helped shape civilization as we know it; of course it’s powerful. Our work involves dealing with written words all day long. But what if we’re overlooking something?

Before there was writing, there was oral communication. And more than just talking to convey information: there was singing, chanting, storytelling, playacting, etc. While written communication may have shaped civilization, oral communication shaped our evolution as a species. It shaped the way our brains are wired. While not every human society developed writing, ALL of them developed oral communication, which, at least when in person, is always supported by nonverbal body language.

The primacy of oral communication is often overlooked today, especially by those of us so enamored with the written word. But it is paramount. An effective speaker is remembered long after the speech is over. We remember words spoken, and how they are spoken.

I started thinking about this last semester, when I took a class in Hawaiian/Pacific librarianship. We discussed the transition from oral to written culture in the context of Pacific islands, and how much power those written words carried. However, part of the reason they carried so much weight is because those Pacific peoples already understood deeply how much power spoken words have. This is demonstrated in the traditional Hawaiian proverb:  I ka ‘ōlelo no ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make. “In the word is life, in the word is death.” In this, my last semester of library school, I have experienced three things that made me truly aware of the crucial importance of oral communication: Storytelling, booktalking, and the comprehensive oral exam.

Let’s start with the fun stuff: Storytelling! Those of us with children know what a difference there is between attending storytime with a good storyteller, versus a so-so one. A good storyteller captures the attention of adults as well as children, and no one in the audience gets bored. But storytelling has become a rather specialized art form these days. Usually when we think of storytime, we expect librarians or volunteers reading stories aloud from books. Storytelling without books? Yikes! I was a little nervous when my internship supervisor at North Kohala Library told me that she considered storytelling an essential skill for a children’s librarian, and that I would need to learn and tell at least one story during my internship. I might have had more time to get nervous about it if it hadn’t been scheduled for the week immediately after my comprehensive oral exam (more on that below). But there was no time to get nervous about the story. I just read it aloud a few times at home, then told it to myself while I drove to work that day. AND IT WAS AWESOME! No book to fumble with, trying to see the words while you hold it up sideways… just a story, that you know well enough to not worry about the exact wording of each sentence. And the rapt faces of the children in the audience was enough to convince me of the real power behind this art form.

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Then there’s booktalking for young adults. This is something I’m still working on: the final project for this semester’s Young Adult Literature class will be to booktalk ten books in twelve minutes, using techniques developed by our professor. After writing and practicing a few (we each do one or two every week, for practice), I realized that they’re like movie trailers, and as long as I channel the voice and extreme focus of Trailer Voice Guy (In a world….), they’re easy to write and to do. And so much fun. I’m really looking forward to presenting my ten sci-fi picks on May 2nd. Again, the live interaction with the audience, without a PowerPoint, notes, or a book physically in the way, is what drives the energy of this type of performance. And it is definitely a performance: I can think of myself as getting into character, putting on an act. Even if you are shy (and I certainly can be), this CAN work for you. You are putting on a show; not necessarily putting your real self out there, but one you choose and curate for this purpose.

Finally, there’s the comprehensive Oral Exam. Even the name fills new LIS students with dread. I remember seeing it on the website of our program, and thinking, well, I’ll have to deal with that someday… later. Eventually it creeps up on you, and next thing you know, you’re facing the inevitability of having to coherently discuss EVERYTHING you’ve learned in the last two years. HOW WILL YOU EVER SURVIVE? Well, aside from the fact that it gave me my first grey hair, I survived just fine. Not only that, but once I got through the initial panic (ohmygod I’m really doing this!!), I thoroughly enjoyed it. WHAT, you say? ENJOYED IT? Yes, I did. The  Oral Exam forces you to process everything you’ve learned, and to synthesize your coursework, your ideas, and your philosophy into something you can explain to others. It’s great practice for a job interview. But it’s so much more than that. I felt like it really made me understand, from a larger perspective, what I’ve been doing these past two years, and how it has changed my way of thinking. It is, of course, used as a method of evaluation by the professors conducting it. But its value is far, far greater to the student, in evaluating and understanding themselves. I highly recommend the oral exam as a capstone experience if your program offers it.

So, in sum, I highly recommend getting your nose out of a book (or your computer) for a while, and musing on the importance of oral communication in our profession (and life in general). If I wasn’t able to convince you yet, please take a look at some job postings in our field: I assure you, most of them list “excellent oral communication skills” as an essential qualification.

Please share your thoughts below!

Chezlani Casar is about to graduate with her MLISc from the University of Hawai’i. She is very excited about public librarianship.

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