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Some Differences Between Reading and Listening:
Corollary to "Significant Differences Between Writing and Talking; Why Talking Seems Easier"

Rick Garlikov

In various forms of relatively immediate back and forth communication involving relatively short exchanges (as in instant messaging, texting, even emails), I think there is very little difference between writing and talking with each other in terms of thinking up what to say.  Writing back and forth just takes longer than talking back and forth (and can be annoyingly frustrating with someone who doesn't give enough information in their messages to help the process be more efficient, as in trying to make an appointment without offering the best times for them), and in writing back and forth it may be difficult to interrupt where that would be important to do, or you can get out of sync, where one of you is responding to a different message from the one they have in mind.  But otherwise the responses back and forth will generally be about the same in a written dialogue as in a spoken one. 

However, in longer and/or more complex communications, such as a speech or lecture on the one hand versus an essay or longer written work, there are important potential differences between what can better be understood by listening or reading, particularly when addressing people orally with somewhat short attention, concentration, or memory spans, and even more particularly if the audience needs to keep in mind a fair amount of earlier material to appreciate the later material.  With some exceptions, in those cases it is normally easier for people to have material in front of them in written form in order to attend to the components they need to have in mind, then to try to recall and organize everything they hear as they need it.  Plus, in some cases reading is much faster than listening, as when one has to go through a tedious menu on a phone call with an answering machine that lists sequentially various departments or choices, which you could pick out much faster if they were before you in a well-organized way on a computer screen and you could just quickly skim the entire list to spot the choice you want. 

That being said, it is nevertheless also important to try to organize material one is presenting, whether in written form or in oral form, in ways that help the reader or listener keep it in mind, absorb, and assimilate it, rather than just presenting a large number of individual facts that on the surface are not related and do not appear to have particular significance.  There have been popular guessing games, such as "Twenty Questions" or "I've Got a Secret" or "What's My Line [of work]", where one gets to ask questions of someone to narrow down figuring out the answer.  Some questions are much more helpful than others for helping guess the correct answer within the allotted amount of time or number of questions.  E.g., "Is it bigger than a breadbasket?" was a popular opening questions when the category is an object.  And "is it something that one wears?" might be another.  If you can narrow down the characteristics of an object with earlier questions, that is better than trying to guess all possible objects in the universe: is it a pen, a pencil, a piece of paper, a ball, a cloud, a raindrop, a bolt, a washer, a nail, a hinge, a necklace, etc.  Guessing individual objects one at a time is not likely to lead anywhere; there are too many possibilities.  The same principle is true for presenting material.  If you can present it in a structure or framework that makes more sense than simply unrelated facts do, you help your reader or listener focus in on and remember the important specifics when you get to them.  But what might be a better structure for one person or audience may not be as good a structure for a different person or group of listeners or readers.  I explained about that in the writing/talking essay.  What is important here is that a thoughtful reader can usually more readily reorganize longer written material than longer oral material if s/he needs to do that.  Or the reader can more easily see the author's own organization, by going back and forth between the different components in a written work.  A reader who works at it can more likely keep them sufficiently in mind as necessary to organize into one's own most meaningful perspective.  That is more difficult for most listeners to do unless key components of the material are brilliantly presented in a way, or just happen to be, meaningful to them at the time it is first presented. 

For example, if one watches sufficient murder mysteries, one starts to recognize clues presented early in a drama and then has them in mind to relate them to other clues later, whereas a novice might easily have forgot the original clue altogether by the time it becomes relevant to later information.  Great mystery writers will present clues in a way it is possible to see so that you understand them at the end, but that are not so obvious that it spoils the end or takes away from its surprise.  Or, in one episode of the medical drama House, a nun comes into the hospital with a rash of some sort on her hands.  She has been washing dishes at the convent when this began.  House says it is likely an allergic reaction to the dish washing detergent.  He treats her with something to which she has a bad reaction and then when he gives her something for that, she goes into cardiac arrest and has to be resuscitated.  So within the first five minutes of the start of the program and her visit to the hospital, he has nearly killed this woman who came in with a mild rash on her hands.  And he is supposed to be one of the best diagnosticians in the country or even in the world. 

They hospitalize her in an isolation room where airborne allergens cannot get in easily, and where they carefully monitor her food; no visitors, etc. She gets worse and worse, and after a day or two is deteriorating badly.  It turns out that the nun, before she became a nun, was something of a wild young woman.  House learns this incidentally from visiting the convent and talking with the Mother Superior to see whether she or anyone has possibly noticed earlier signs of some possible disease.  But her having been wild in the past doesn't account for her symptoms now, years after she has become a most devout and devoted nun; there is no way she has returned to her past behaviors.  House's meeting with the Mother Superior takes place in the convent's kitchen, which is a large, wonderfully organized, absolutely beautiful kitchen, with great architecture and design, and with shiny pots and pans hanging from racks on the walls and ceiling, etc.  It is a very pretty scene as the camera then zooms in on House and the Mother Superior.  By the end of the program as the nun is getting worse and closer to death, House figures out it was not the detergent to which she was allergic, but the copper pots -- the beautiful copper pots we saw everywhere in the kitchen.  She was allergic to copper.  But since she does not have access to copper in the hospital, it must be something internal.  They X-ray her abdomen for what House expects to find, and they see it in the X-ray.  Before she was a nun, she had had plenty of sex and to keep from getting pregnant she'd had an IUD inserted, and it happened to be a copper one that had become embedded into the wall of her uterus, eventually causing the intense reaction to copper.  Once it was removed, she recovered.  My point about this is that I had never heard of an allergy to copper, so the scene with the copper pots was just a pretty scene to me, not a clue to her condition.  I didn't even remember it, but noticed it immediately when I watched the episode again after knowing the outcome.  But any physician who knew about copper allergies or maybe had treated someone for one, particularly recently, would likely have picked up on that right away.  So what is significant to different listeners/viewers/readers will be different unless one can make the earlier material properly significant in some way, though in fiction or in problem-solving exercises in non-fiction, not so significant as to require no thought or work.

However, apart from entertainment or problem-solving practice exercises, generally one is trying to make the information which is necessary for understanding be as clear and significant as possible as one presents it. That is difficult for listeners and readers with material that is previously unfamiliar to them because it is presented temporally, and time is linear.  Thus they have have to keep in memory what comes before in order to relate it to what is presented later; and that is difficult when there are a great many details and none of them has particular significance to them, and thus are not particularly memorable on their own.  But at least when reading, one can go back and forth among facts one may have forgot or not noticed to be important when first seen.  One can skip around though previously read material with fair ease, but with temporally linear material, you have to either watch the program over or be able to somehow index certain places you can return to.  Modern technology is improving at being able to essentially help people navigate faster through technologically indexed linear material, but for now, print is still faster for us to find things than audio or audio visual material.  Obviously if you want someone to pay particular attention to a song or program on YouTube or video, and you know where the part starts, you can tell them the minute and second time to start watching or to watch more carefully, but if you don't know where that material begins, they will just have to watch from the beginning till they find it.   And at this point in regard to printed material, though when you know what you are seeking, searching technologically through print on a computer file is far faster than trying to find it in a book where you don't recall where it is or perhaps even exactly what it is, it is usually faster to find something in a book or article than on a computer, when you don't have sufficient specifics to let the technology zero in on it.  You can flip through sections of a book more readily than you can scroll through page after page on a computer.  And you can find passages in a book faster than you could find them by 'scrolling' through an audio version of the book.

Now, one of the ways to assist your listener's memory is to break up the material you present into doses that are able to be assimilated, particularly if you can somehow make it meaningful and memorable in its own right as you present it.  Having meaningful interaction with an audience so one can "read" the audience and get a sense of their level of attention and comprehension is one way of doing this and is a luxury afforded to an astute speaker, but not to an author of a long written work who is not with the reader to get feedback at the time.  And a speaker who has to tape a presentation in a studio without a live audience is in the same boat as an author writing alone.  There can be no feedback at that time.  So the author has to organize it right him/herself.  S/he gets no help in the form of questions, body language, facial expressions or any other of sign from the reader/listener to know what is best to say/write next.  A talented author or speaker can do that fairly well; but most people need help from audience reactions as they go along if they would simply look for them, recognize them, or know how to coax and promote them.  So when a terrible lecturer doesn't allow audience questions and also doesn't pick up on audience loss of concentration, comprehension, or loss of attention, s/he is simply then just 'droning on' with the same audible result as the proverbial tree falling in a deserted forest.  Talking too long without interaction (including laughter or some other form of audience acknowledgement of a point which the speaker perceives) doesn’t give proper 'spacing' or juxtaposition of the content to allow absorption and assimilation of it.  And laughter or other kinds of appropriate responses by some in an audience can help other members of the audience stay more focused and be better able to assimilate the material.  Without a speaker's allowing interruptions for questions or comments and without picking up on audience cues, even reading audience facial expressions, the listener is not in control of necessary or beneficial breaks and pace of presentation of the material.  However, a good reader is, even when the author can't pace it for him/her ahead of time.  A good reader can pause when necessary to reflect on or savor a passage.  That cannot be done with a live oral presentation, though it can be done with a recorded presentation and the right technology that allows rewinding to specific places.  Still, I find it much much easier to enjoy Shakespeare reading it myself than to hear it presented at breakneck speed and without the kind of inflection that is helpful, even if trying to watch it on a DVD where I can pause it.  A great performer can help me appreciate it far better than I can read it for myself, but it is the reverse when the performer is average or poor.  And when studying something presented on a computer in audio-visual form or with a transcript, I will watch the AV for a minute to see how well the presenters articulate or present the material, but then usually prefer to read the transcript  unless they are masterful speakers.

But for reading to work well, the reader has to take control to try to glean the meaning with his/her own intellectual efforts in those places particularly where the author may not have helped much in the organization but at least has all the necessary information.   The problem for reading is that reader cannot ask questions that are not answered in the writing, whereas listener in a situation that allows interaction can ask questions.  Part of why the Socratic Method done correctly works so well for certain kinds of material is that it allows for interaction and for small assimilate doses of material at a time, as does comedy, perhaps particularly standup comedy in which each part is good on its own but where one part sets up another (example below).  This is different from lecturing, unless the lecturer is listening and watching for responses and either knows where the natural responsive places should be or has designed places to evoke a response or at least some sort of audience acknowledgement -- or can look at eyes, facial expressions, or body language to see whether people are following or not.  A writer or pre-recorded speaker doesn’t have that opportunity.  And speakers/lecturers who don't allow interruption and who cannot 'read' their audience's reactions then in effect don’t have it either and are more like writers who must rely on organizing material so it can most readily be absorbed.  However, readers can backtrack but listeners cannot when the speaker is not present or will not take questions and comments.  If written material is poorly organized but at least contains all that is necessary, reader can cope with poor organization through their own efforts to realign the material into a more meaningful juxtaposition, but listeners cannot do that as readily, particularly if there is a lot of information. 

A clever listener might be able to reconstruct properly a poorly botched joke or riddle or a misstated simple idea by reverse-engineering it from the punchline or conclusion given.  Even Google can sometime guess what you meant to search for from the mistake you entered.  But that is really difficult, if not impossible to do with long and/or complex material that is impenetrable when points are not presented in any logical form -- too many details to try to rearrange -- like a 1000 piece puzzle instead of a 10 piece, one as a simple riddle or joke would be.  I was translating for an assignment in a German course one time, aphorisms by Goethe, which were akin to the pithy sayings in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac when I came across one that was very different in style from the others, to the best I could come up with a translation for it, which was a mistaken one on my part -- so mistaken that it explained why it seemed uncharacteristic of the others.  Even though the aphorism was fairly short, four or so of the words in it had totally different multiple German-English dictionary meanings, and I was having to try to choose one meaning from each multiple that then all made sense together.  I finally got such a meaning, but....  The aphorism actually translates into "One is truly impoverished who has lost all shame with regard to not keeping his pains and suffering to himself private matters."  I had translated it as "One is truly impoverished who has had harm come to  his private parts."  My German teacher, who was a great guy, looked at the original again and had me repeat my interpretation, and then he saw how I got it and almost asphyxiated himself laughing and lying face down on his desk, totally red.  When he was finally able to breathe and stand up again, he had me write down the original and my translation for all his friends.  And that was just something like four pairs of words.  With much longer works, like Kant's writings about ethics already translated by others into English, it took me decades to figure out a philosophical interpretation that made any sense at all to me ("My Interpretation and Analysis of Kant's Ideas About Ethics"), and I only tried to make sense out of it because he is considered a major influence in ethics and the ideas as normally presented just seemed clearly mistaken to me, so that if he is to be right and his reputation deserved, there had to be some other interpretation from the standard one.  And that was a challenging puzzle to me whenever I would think about it (which for the longest time was seldom).    One can possibly make sense out of a long, complex work with enough time and other knowledge of the subject and with a lot of effort and intelligent work, but not just by initial, even multiple, reading or listening to poorly organized facts that have no significance just on their own to you and with no context to help you. 

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.

The most recent example of this I heard was Roy Wood, Jr.'s discussion of fast food restaurants and racism.  He was criticizing people who jump too quickly to the conclusion that everything bad that happens to them is the result of racism.  And he used fast food places as an example.  But first he digressed and pointed out that fast food places are not immune from justified criticism, and as an example he talked about having to pay a quarter for an extra packet of sauce to go with his chicken nuggets and did a funny bit about futilely trying to convince the guy at the counter into giving him a second packet of sauce free.  But then he returned to racism and jumping to perceiving it too quickly.  He was starting to walk into a McDonald's one night when as he heard an irate customer at the counter yell he was going to kill everyone in this place because he had been cheated out of a chicken nugget by a racist employee who had only put five in the box and he had ordered six.  "White people never want to let black people have anything they deserve...."  Roy launches into a whole funny bit about this and then finally reports saying to the guy: "Look, you can't jump to racism first even if in the end it might turn out to be a racism; but don't lead with that.  This is a fast food place, and it is 2 in the morning.  Probably half those people in the back can't count to six; it was probably a mistake.  And you shouldn't be asking for a six pack anyway; you want to just order a four pack and a two pack; they can probably count right for those ... and then you get your two free sauces."  Or as one comedian one time said after telling a hilarious story and the audience laughter and applause had died down "Now, I only told you that, so I could tell you this..." and then he had their rapt attention for the next story while they knew it was going to build on the previous one.  They were focused.  A masterful novelist or story teller can tie together earlier points in a way that lesser authors and speakers cannot, and in a way readers and audiences can notice and appreciate. (Return to text.)