To become good at anything, we must not only do. We must also observe.
In this course, you will benefit just as much from watching your peers and other performers do interp as you will from doing it yourself. By examining and evaluating other interpretation presentations, considering the performers’ choices of literature and arrangements/organization, introductions, confidence levels, vocal characteristics, body language, and characterizations, you can learn a great deal about what sorts of choices work in interp. From there, you can make decisions to improve your future performances.
But, to better evaluate oral interpretation performances, you must first focus on listening skills.
The Importance of Listening
Understanding how listening works provides the foundation we need to explore why we listen, including various types and styles of listening. In general, listening helps us achieve important communication goals. Listening is also important in academic, professional, and personal contexts.
In terms of academics, poor listening skills have been shown to contribute significantly to failure in a person’s first year of college (Zabava & Wolvin, 1993). In general, students with high scores for listening ability have greater academic achievement. Potential employers openly value listening skills, with this trait consistently ranking in the top ten in national surveys (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2010).
Poor listening skills, lack of conciseness, and inability to give constructive feedback have been identified as potential communication challenges in professional contexts. Even though listening education is lacking in our society, research has shown that introductory communication courses provide important skills necessary for functioning in entry-level jobs, including listening, writing, motivating/persuading, interpersonal skills, informational interviewing, and small-group problem solving (DiSalvo, 1980). So, while this chapter may be focused primarily on how you can listen better to evaluate your peers’ performances, the constructive feedback skills you will learn will pay off down the road, even if you never watch another performance.
The following list reviews some of the main functions of listening that are relevant in multiple contexts (Hargie, 2011):
- to focus on messages sent by other people or noises coming from our surroundings
- to better our understanding of another person’s communication
- to critically evaluate other people’s messages
- to monitor nonverbal signals
- to indicate that we are interested or paying attention
- to empathize with others and show we care for them (relational maintenance), and
- to engage in negotiation, dialogue, or other exchanges that result in shared understanding of or agreement on an issue.
At some point in the semester, you will use each one of these listening functions as you work with and evaluate your peers in class.
Listening serves many purposes, and different situations require different types of listening. The type of listening we engage in affects our communication and how others respond to us. In this course, as we listen to our peers perform, we may need to employ a few different types of listening to provide good feedback.
The main types of listening that may apply in this course are discriminative, informational, critical, and empathetic (Watson, Barker, & Weaver III, 1995).
Discriminative listening is a focused and usually instrumental type of listening that is primarily physiological and occurs mostly at the receiving stage of the listening process. Here we engage in listening to scan and monitor our surroundings to isolate particular auditory or visual stimuli. In the absence of a hearing impairment, we have an innate and physiological ability to engage in discriminative listening. Although this is the most basic form of listening, it provides the foundation on which more intentional listening skills are built. This type of listening can be refined and honed. Think of how musicians, singers, and mechanics exercise specialized discriminative listening to isolate specific aural stimuli and how actors, detectives, and sculptors discriminate visual cues that allow them to analyze, make meaning from, or recreate nuanced behavior (Wolvin & Coakley, 1993).
We must begin with discriminative listening when we settle in to watch, listen to, and evaluate an oral interpretation performance, clearing our minds and bodies from all distractions, to give the performer our full and undivided attention. We can accomplish this by silencing our phones, avoiding other tasks, directing our eyes, ears, and heart toward the performer, and losing ourselves for a time in the world they have created for us.
Informational listening entails listening with the goal of comprehending and retaining information. This type of listening is not evaluative and is common in teaching and learning contexts ranging from a student listening to a teacher to an out-of-towner listening to directions to the nearest gas station. We also use informational listening when we listen to news reports, voice mail, and briefings at work.
Since retention and recall are important components of informational listening, good concentration and memory skills are key. These also happen to be skills that many college students struggle with, at least in the first years of college, but will be expected to have mastered once they get into professional contexts. In many professional contexts, informational listening is important, especially when receiving instructions. Truthfully, you will be expected to process verbal instructions more frequently in your profession than you here in college. Most college professors provide detailed instructions and handouts with assignments so you can review them as needed, but many supervisors and managers will expect you to take the initiative to remember or record vital information. Additionally, many bosses are not as open to questions or requests to repeat themselves as professors are.
When you watch a performance for evaluative purposes either in the classroom, online, or in professional or live setting, you will likely receive a set of instructions on what and how to accomplish this task. You will use informational listening at this time to understand the requirements.
You will also engage in a bit of informational listening while you watch certain performances. Even though you will be often watching your peers for evaluative purposes, you will undoubtedly learn a few new things along the way. You will come away from some performances with a new perspective on an old cliché or an appreciation for a culture of which you were previously unaware. You will probably also be banking some ideas for your future performances based on what you see your peers doing with their own.
Critical listening entails listening with the goal of analyzing or evaluating a message based on information presented verbally and information that can be inferred from context. A critical listener evaluates a message and accepts it, rejects it, or decides to withhold judgment and seek more information. You can see judges employ critical listening, with varying degrees of competence, on talent competition shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice. While the exchanges between judge and contestant on these shows is expected to be subjective and critical, critical listening is also important when listening to speakers that have stated or implied objectivity, such as parents, teachers, political leaders, doctors, and religious leaders.
Critical-listening skills are useful when listening to and evaluating performances in this class. This is often scary for beginning performers who feel they are too inexperienced to offer any kind of valuable feedback. However, as an experienced audience member, you have more of an eye/ear for good performance than you think, and if paired with a kind, helpful, and constructive approach, your feedback will not only be valuable to your peers, but welcome.
When we listen to empathize with others, our messages will likely be supportive and open, which will then lead the other person to feel “heard” and supported and hopefully view the interaction positively (Bodie & Villaume, 2003).
Empathetic listening is the most challenging form of listening and occurs when we try to understand or experience what a speaker is thinking or feeling. Because of our own centrality in our perceptual world, empathetic listening can be difficult. It’s often much easier for us to tell our own story or to give advice than it is to really listen to and empathize with someone else.
When you listen to others’ interpretation performances, listening empathetically can help us expand our self and social awareness by learning from other people’s experiences and by helping us take on different perspectives. Additionally, since performers are free to choose their own literature and highlight the messages from it that they feel are important, oral interp performances can often be very personal. So, it is important that while you listen critically in order to provide helpful feedback to your peers to improve their future performances, you must also listen with empathy in order to get a sense of their motives for creating the performance in the first place. This perspective approach will help you construct your feedback in an even more helpful manner.
Making use of all types of listening styles in this course will not only help you become a better oral interpretation performer, but quite certainly also a better listener in general.
Evaluation Categories for Oral Interpretation
You can help your peers and learn to improve your own performances by evaluating performances in several categories, all of which have been explored in this text, and many (if not all) upon which your instructor will likely score your performances. Using an empathetic yet critical ear and eye, you can give positive and constructive feedback on:
- Introductions – Are all required elements mentioned? Does it set the appropriate tone for the rest of the performance? Is it conversational and natural and written by the performer?
- Literature – Does it meet the touchstones of literary merit appropriate for performance? Is the cutting of the literature, if present, effective?
- Transitions – If present, are they necessary and effective? If not present, are they needed?
- Familiarity – Does the performer look up from the literature while performing it a majority of the time?
- Focal points – Does the performer seem to understand to whom each character in his/her program is speaking? Do they provide effective and appropriate focal points to help the audience see this conversation?
- Voice – Does the performer make effective use of vocal variation to establish emotion, feeling, and characterization?
- Body language - Does the performer make effective use of various body language techniques to establish emotion, feeling, and characterization?
- Time – Does the entire performance fall within the expected time range?
This is not an exhaustive list. You may think of other important considerations upon which you may want to comment as you watch any performance.