For years, I believed that writing was the epitome of linguistic and logical expression.
Writing is deliberated, controlled, improved upon before finally being read by the reader. This means that the articulator has ample opportunity to accurately convey their thoughts.
Speech on the other hand is real-time and confounded by mental noise. Speech information in its final form is at best a marginal improvement over the initial thought. Why? Because speech is temporally closer to the thought, and has therefore not undergone the refinement that exists in writing. Aside from occasional linguistic slips that give psychological insight into the speaker, speech is, by and large, further from the truth than writing is — or so I thought.
The time constraint only makes speech the inefficient form if the speaker has no great incentive to speak within the given time. Generally, in times of incredibly high strain when you have to get something done — when you truly believe that you have to do a thing as if your life depended on doing that thing — you just get the thing done. If this belief is artificially created, it still works. The prime example is sport. For good sportspeople, their sport is everything. When they play, they transform what we see as arbitrary stimuli — goals, scores, games — into life-or-death situations. To say that these stimuli are not life-or-death is wrong. The essentiality of the situation is a mental state, and so to the sportsperson, it is life-or-death. If the speaker feels such a life-or-death desire to speak efficiently, speech evolves into the superior form of expression.
Such a feeling for speech is simple to instill: Turn speech into a sport. Debate does this.
The type of debate I’m specifically talking about is British parliamentary debate, where you’re given 15 minutes to deliberate on a motion before speaking on it. Your stance on the motion is assigned by the moderator. Being forced to uphold values and logic that you don’t agree with is like being forced to play football for a team you don’t support. The mental openness that it takes to understand the logic of a side you don’t necessarily agree with, the deftness of thought needed to deconstruct the logic in time, the verbal ability needed to convert the logic into words in time, and the emotional awareness needed to master the delivery of the words in time together make debate a crazy form of mental acrobatics.
Debate’s use of the voice, face, and body as articulators, along with its time constraint, allow it to do something that writing has never managed to do: Turn language and logic into a sport.
Writers need to know how to play this sport, and apply its rules to their writing. Parliamentary debate forces you to establish a logic for your claims and walk through the logic incrementally, carefully, cautiously. Lapses in logic are too common in everyday writing. And although one could argue that such lapses are more evident and thus more scrutinizable in writing owing to the fact that writing is a recorded medium, I would argue that the lack of immediate repudiation in writing, generally speaking, outweighs the higher visibility of the lapses. The lack of immediate repudiation means that there’s no driving force for writers to improve their logic. This means many writers with incredible ideas don’t manage to sound convincing to their readers and thus don’t get their points across.
I’ve been guilty of such lapses myself. Debate has made me more aware of them, and I think it can do the same for all writers. So, to all writers: Stop writing for a week, and start speaking instead.