Preparation 7 — We Can and Do Prepare Poorly

Preparation 7 — We Can and Do Prepare Poorly

This is part of a presently ongoing series about Preparation. Each post has been made more or less self-contained, and refers to other portions of the series and elsewhere when helpful. They can be read in any order, though they thematically still build on one another in sequence, and I recommend reading them from the beginning. To be notified when a new entry is released, and to receive instant notifications for any other updates on the site, please head here. Feel free to give me feedback on any of them as well, either in the comments below them, or by contacting me—particularly if there is something specific that should be addressed as the series progresses.

Preparing Poorly

square-peg-round-holeIf over-preparing is doing too much, preparing poorly is doing the wrong things. Unfortunately, the wrong things done in the right way don’t become right along the way, making it just as bad, if not worse.

Proper Preparation Isn’t Intuitive When Our Intuition Isn’t Proper

Without the Rhetorical knowledge and skills to know better, our default mode of preparation is wanting to do something before an engagement occurs, largely judging its value by how it makes us feel.

If we haven’t taken the time to learn and practice Rhetoric, we usually feel bad before being judged on how well we apply it, seeking out preparatory activities based on how much of that anxiety they alleviate. I usually call this “Preparation as Prozac.” We resort to research as procrastination, flashcards, and outlines like we had in grade school, whether or not they’re appropriate, as if anything aided us in all things we can attempt. They fly us away from our Rhetorical woes with fond memories of how well they used to ‘work’, and we feel better because we’re ‘doing stuff’. When all we had to do was regurgitate ‘facts’ out loud or on paper — assuming we didn’t have it orders of magnitude easier by being asked to identify them on a multiple choice test — plenty of times that did ‘work’, but what we’re tasked with doing ‘in the wild’ as adults isn’t at all like that, particularly not when it comes to Rhetoric.

Our intuition can be a great guide when we’re great at what it pertains to. Lacking that, however, and it often acts as a reflection of our feelings about it. At that point in developing our abilities, most of our feelings are misguided, making the process only serve to lead us further astray, and at a time when we’d most benefit from being on track to cultivate good products and performances from our preparatory efforts.

Beginner's intuition

Beginner’s intuition

Left to our own devices, our feelings are usually the only form of feedback we have on how effective our preparation is — at least before it’s too late. These are a horrible guide as beginners when we have little experience in viewing the entirety of Rhetoric as a coherent thing. To make matters worse, once we’ve finished our performance, the feedback we have on how well our preparatory efforts served us is also all too often ambiguous if we don’t know how to read it. We assume we prepared well if we did well, and that we prepared poorly if we did poorly, neglecting how well or poorly we could have done by comparison through other means and methods.

The question we answer for ourselves when deciding what to do to prepare in situations like these is implicitly “how does this make me feel?” not “will this improve the results of my intended performance?” The gap between either question is great. It doesn’t occur to us that many of the things we commonly do to prepare often leave us less prepared than we were to begin with, despite how much time and effort we may earnestly put into them. We assume anything we do will help, and would never consider that some of what we do will hurt.

If only that were true.

Because of how poor our intuition is regarding anything we know little about and have little experience with, this makes many aspects of preparing well at times necessarily counterintuitive. This is because they’re intended to make us perform better and using an expedient amount of resources, not necessarily to give us low-hanging fruit to grasp in the form of ‘busy work’ to feel better about the moments leading up to our destined deliver. We’re most hungry for those when our gut feelings are wrong and we don’t know any better, eager to do the wrong things in the right way in the hope that they’ll become right along the way. Over time as we reach for better preparatory options and associate them with greater success, however, our tastes change, and our intuition thankfully along with it, those actions coming to satisfy our feelings more than our anxiously selected former habits ever could1.

What the right thing to do often looks like to novice intuition

What the right thing to do often looks like to novice intuition

As a mindset, this a useful perspective to help us reconsider what we’re doing to prepare and why. To make it less abstract, however, it’ll help if we go over some common examples of how our initial intuitions get in the way of our preparation by making us less equipped to Rhetorically perform by virtue of doing specific things, not failing to have done them.

Speaking Isn’t Writing, Writing Isn’t Speaking

Much of what most of us do to prepare when we haven’t the Rhetorical knowledge and skills to know better also ends up holding us back the more we do it.

rabbit-holeA rabbit hole most of us fall down is confusing speaking with writing. We tend to prepare for speaking events in writing because it will be more readily available to us throughout the process, and presumably in the moment we deliver, usually being the most accessible medium we have. We can also get feedback on a written speech yet to be delivered far easier than we could a spoken one, the idea being that the feedback we receive will help us better perform when the time comes, and that written words are spoken ones that only differ in their having yet to be said. In this view, if we don’t read written things aloud as we read them, it’s because we’re being polite, or at times secretive. Were we in and around Ancient Rome, this would have been true.

The written word used to be closer to either ledgers or later on sheet music in both composition and usage. Letters lacked spaces between them, things like ‘sentences’, ‘words’, and ‘paragraphs’ in the visual sense being later developments, along with punctuation, and further still, things like books and mass reproduction. When things weren’t read aloud back then, they didn’t make any coherent sense, and even then, they still sometimes didn’t work out as Rhetorically intended. We adapted them on the fly as we spoke them into oral versions as best we could, many accounts suggesting the experience with reading short-form things was akin to mumbling something to ourselves and others, then mutually asking afterwards “okay, but what does that mean?” We’ve come a long way since then, developing entirely visual mediums like comics that more readily aren’t the spoken word encapsulated in physical form, but still differ from it in principle in much the same way what we now refer to as writing does2.

Even when writing was intended as a catalyst for speech, however, as mediums, they were still very different — these differences likely account for part of why earlier periods did not like writing, were at times opposed to it, and relatively few people saw value enough in literacy to attempt employing it. Writing was weird.

Doesn't work this way

What the written word sounds like

When we assume writing and speaking are the same, however, we pass written documents back and forth, make revisions based on any criticism we find, and say it aloud either alone or in front of a small group. We’ll typically do this a handful of times to go through the motions of what we plan to do when we get out in front of a crowd. Done well, there is merit to using the written word as an aid to preparation, particularly if the end result of our preparation is intended to appear in written form and not spoken, or will be most prominently experienced, examined, and enduring in its written form. This is the nature of most academic presentations and political speeches. But although we casually refer to the written and spoken versions of a tongue by the same name — such as English or Japanese — they’re all different languages, despite bearing the same conversational designation. The Rhetoric of writing and speaking are as distinct as their mediums, provided we stop to appreciate each distinctly. Along with that, the methods and modes of creating great work in either writing or speaking aren’t the same. We don’t bake a great cake by going through the motions of making a great pizza, and we don’t make great speeches in the same way we make great essays.

Means and Methods Matter

Being distinct forms, what works in one medium doesn’t necessarily work in another, despite how we mentally equate the Rhetorical aspects of all mediums through the common denominator of our understanding and experiencing them. We usually feel like all mediums are the same in some way, but in our use of them, they aren’t. What’s similar about them is their affect on us, not the how the mediums themselves work to create those effects, either in their creation or when we engage with them as they occur. Nor are our knowledge and skills in any one of them fungible with the rest, or all we’d have to do was learn one medium to master them all. Learning multiple mediums is one of the best ways to learn and appreciate Rhetoric on a general level because their linked in the general context of that, but each has its own best practices both in how we apply them, and how we cultivate our ability to perform well with them — which are distinct activities. The differences between mediums like books, speeches, drawing, film, comics, and radio all need be appreciated as different if we’re to employ them well, the heavy lifting on that done for us when we’re in the role of receiving them, not making them. The experiences we have of the Rhetorical aspects of mediums can be deceptive when they’re well done because extemporaneous excellence often appears effortless3, but how we prepare ourselves to do that is what has the govern effect on how our performances play out.

All different

All different

This is an easy thing to understand, but also another example of something we tend not to intuitively appreciate — either explicitly in explaining our beliefs, or implicitly in how we make use of any medium we intend to employ.

In the vein of these typically neglected nuances, how we work in one medium is also distinct from how we work in another. This extends to how we prepare to perform in any medium, beginning with our means and methods of constructing them. In many mediums that go on to become products, our means and methods of constructing them exist entirely in what we’ve defined as preparation4, as products are usually ‘done’ when we either run out of resources like time to make them, or someone decides they’re now finished, not when a designated engagement occurs within which we perform directly for and with an audience. Our preparation is an extended engagement when making products, and for reasons we’ll come to, that’s why it’s significantly harder to do things like write a good book than it is to give a good talk.

If we spend too much time entrenching ourselves in the wrong mediums and in the wrong ways in preparation for Rhetorically performing in other mediums, like when we write and read many novels worth of written words before we utter a single word in preparation for giving a twenty minute lecture, we dig ourselves down in bad habits and misplaced efforts that soon come to box us in, rather than raising us up. hole-diggingThis keeps us from reaching what would have otherwise been our potential for peak performances, which is tragically what inspires us to dig, and keeps us digging the further down we go. As we get further and further away from where we could have otherwise been, we come to live in the shadows of our preparatory work, we dig deeper and deeper until we’re so far down that we’d need outside help to get ourselves out — assuming we don’t give up and decide to live there, feeling like we’d have to tackle the insurmountable mounds of our misplaced efforts if we were ever to begin again. Rather than using that dirt to stand on in order to better ascend to the heights we were initially after, we end up digging our own Rhetorical graves because we’re confused about what we’re supposed to do with all of that time, effort, and Rhetoric we’re employing. As we’ll come to, this preparatory period is a Rhetorical engagement of its own5, the role of what we’re doing and all that’s involved being more like scaffolding and leveling the foundation and discussion than it is actual building. That unfortunately doesn’t stop many of us from building castles out of scaffolding and sand, however, and becoming determined to live there for having invested so thoroughly in them, rather than using any of them as the disposable set of tools they rightly are in service to making something that could have been legitimately monumental instead of monumentally ignorant.

The confusion of mediums and the preparatory work that goes into them is one of the many reasons plenty of film adaptations of books don’t ‘work’, and the ones that do work tend to be from relatively poorly written novels — specifically on the level of them working well in the Rhetoric of the written word as novels, not abstract considerations of plot or setting that as I’ve written elsewhere are things we ourselves as readers ‘do’, not the works themselves. This common practice is useful as an example of the pitfalls of preparation because the role books play in it is as preparation, the adaptation process that occurs between books and films being of the same kind that we employ in our own preparatory efforts, albeit many millions of dollars cheaper, and with a lot less fanfare. The latter at least applies to me, as I can’t recall anyone ever having paid money for pictures of me preparing for a talk or writing a book, despite my willingness to sell them.

Not quite the film experience

Not quite the film experience

Books that are readily adapted into film are usually more recent, seemingly written at all with the intention of acting as a storyboard for a visually compelling script, usually by someone that’s spent too much time screenwriting and can no longer tell the difference between that style and others, anyone that sees the written word as a catalyst for other things, or at times by those of us that simply don’t know how to employ things well that aren’t plot. What’s adapted from these works tends to be their relatively ornamental elements — such as their characters, settings, and key plot points — but typically not the Rhetoric that would have made them succeed or fail as written novels in the first place — which among other things, are the modes and methods those are weaved together with that make their elements form into a compelling work in the context they’re experienced, both at the time, and thereafter, ideally getting better with every read. If we pay attention to the works that translate readily into film, even their descriptions read like they’ve been written for a costume artist or a set designer.
Great films, bad books

Great films, bad books

The Harry Potter series is emblematic of this, which has gone on to be used as a draft for a visually splendid series of films, host to a number of wonderful actors, artists, and compelling performances by all involved at most levels of the production. All of the leading youths growing up as the films progressed is a wonderful effect that appears to have deeply touched anyone that grew up with them, or saw them as they were coming out in theaters to witness it all progressing with an element of authenticity that taps our empathy in ways that would be hard to otherwise match in any medium. The films themselves are all unique with their own directors and tone, and on the whole are at times great in most respects. If we’re to be critical about the novels serving as templates for them, however, they were well targeted more than they were well written, there being very little they Rhetorically ‘do’ besides relating plot points and employing clichés to keep them going that writing teachers usually frown upon for good reason6. A good rule of thumb I teach to test whether or not a narrative medium is being used well is to describe the story, characters, and setting to someone else, and if that description is no better or worse than the tale itself, then it isn’t accomplishing anything worth doing. Using the written word as a medium to its fullest would have made the series both harder to adapt into films, as well having been a superfluous effort to their more productive end-goal of being loose drafts of a screenplay, however. The Rhetorical character of either would differ dramatically when they’re to be primarily used as an aid to producing future work, and not a work in and of itself.
Bad film, great book

Bad film, great book

Done well, the Rhetorical aspects of any work will be hard to adapt to other mediums because they make fullest use of the uniquely compelling aspects of the mediums they are in, as well as the audience they’re intended for. World War Z is an example of the latter, the film and novel ‘versions’ of it being so far apart that I don’t think anyone knows why they bothered to buy the license if they were going to make a zombie moving that had almost nothing to do with the book7. The form of the ‘novel’ itself would certainly make for an interesting experimental and fictitious documentary series, but in addition to being what worked best about the book, it’s also something entirely unique to the Rhetoric of the medium it was written in, not readily adapted into a film of any manageable length. Being akin to a parody of a survival manual, The Zombie Survival Guide would be an extreme example, making use of the written word in a way divorced from the traditional novel and narrative8. The closest thing to a ‘character’ that work has is a crowbar.

Mediums Aren’t Interchangeable, in Preparation or Otherwise

Not everything within a medium can be adapted into all other mediums, either. Length is a common but unappreciated example. Books can go on functionally forever with little friction to picking them up and putting them down, whereas film as an experience is far more finite — despite the millennial trend of making four hour films filled with things none of us needed to see, seemingly intended to test our bladders or make us appreciate the restrooms found in whatever theater we’re in. Part of the reason for the shift to contemporary serial narratives, typically premiering on television and been primarily experienced through streaming services, is because long-form narrative can be an immensely satisfying experience, but isn’t one suited to film. tv-dramasMany film trilogies have unsuccessfully attempted to work around that, but there’s still only so much space to work with given the contexts we experience films in. In the home and elsewhere, however, things can be broken off into manageable chunks, structured to keep us coming back, and make far better use of visual narrative than films have been historically able to accomplish within their constraints — not that they haven’t accomplished plenty of other things uniquely suited to the medium, narrative not being the epitome of art despite a lot of popular literature on it arguing otherwise, and there being more to it than what we traditionally associate with it. The cost of quality acting and production values has also become manageable to the point that a big box office weekend isn’t immediately needn’t to recoup the investment, all the while bearing the character of ‘film-caliber’ work. Plenty of people lament the lack of quality films in recent years, but it’s more accurate to say that the Rhetoric they were after made the jump to serial narratives thanks in no small part to services like Netflix and ubiquitous streaming devices making the market for it there. That form is better suited to visual narratives of that length, depth, and complexity, whereas attempts to do so outgrew theatrical films that continually pushed the boundaries of the art, but nevertheless remained constrained by the medium on that avenue.

The same considerations operate in all mediums, which needs to be kept in mind when one or more of them is being used in preparation for another.

If our intention is to option a book for being made into a feature film, the books we will write take a very different form than the books intended to be works of genius in and of themselves that will engage an audience on their own — which as I’ve written elsewhere, will typically result in a work whose Rhetoric is highly tied to the development of the medium, and because of that cannot usually be adapted to other mediums to produce analogous effects9. The same principle holds true when we’re creating a written body of work that’s meant to facilitate a future performance or product of any kind as a preparatory effort for it, and not be the intended performance or product itself. This isn’t only because of the immense difference in polish and resources needed to distinguish a finished piece and a preliminary draft, but as the works involved in film adaptations readily illustrate, the type of work constructed in either case is vastly different according to the role it will play in the resulting Rhetorical engagement.

Stepping stones, ladders, and elevators all look very different, move us in very different directions, and aren’t interchangeable in service to helping us reach our Rhetorical goals.

As we’ve all seen play out between theaters and bookstores, we can’t take any great book and make it into a great film in any direct way, and the ones we can are of a very different character that don’t work very well on the Rhetorical level in their original mediums. I’ll not touch on what tends to happen when we make books out of films, the only time that seemingly goes well being when an author has the good sense to answer the question of “how can I make this film into a book?” with “I’m going to do my own thing and keep the names of the characters and setting. Anyone literate will appreciate that.”

cooked-wrongWhether we’re baking a cake, a film, a book, a speech, or any other product or performance, it’s clear that when we view preparation as a process, what we do along the way produces the results that we get when we’re done. We can over work things, we can under work things, and we can muck up both the recipe and ingredients despite our best intentions in ways that transform what we’re after into piles of goo that most mismade things turn into. When we don’t know any better, all of those missteps come together into leading us in the wrong direction.

Viewed from the standpoint of our performing in that process itself, whether or not we get where we’d like to go when we come out of the preparation tunnel has to do with where our thinking is directed while we’re engaged, which has a tendency to get tangled up and turned around when we get caught up in preparation itself10.

Footnotes, References, and Citations

  1. Until I get around to putting something up about it, for more helpful insights and perspective on how intuition works and develops, I recommend: Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. (2011 Book). I do not recommend reading a book like Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking(2005) by Malcolm Gladwell, which I mention because many of the examples cited throughout the book are misrepresented and facetious Bullshit. 
  2. For a more thorough examination and introduction to how reading developed, and accordingly its relationship with oral communication, I recommend: Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. (1996 Book). A relevant excerpt can be found here for those both impatient and interested: Silent Readers — Ch2 from A History of Reading
  3. Preparation 11 — The Best Preparation Is Staying in Practice — Extemporaneous Excellence | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  4. Preparation 4 — Preparation Defined | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  5. Preparation 10 — There’s a Rhetoric to Preparation | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  6. There’s a difference between being a great work, and being popular. The Harry Potter series in book form is a good example of simple books being written for an audience that grew up with them, however, which the at-times wonderful films allowed to reach critical mass through the marketing and mechanisms of the film industry — the sum total of the lingering Rhetorical effects of all that being profound. It’s an effect similar to what’s caused Nintendo’s IP to maintain such a strong hold on the minds of many, only in Nintendo’s case, their games defined a medium and are wonderful, while the film versions I can recall are about as divergent from their source works as World War Z (2013 Film). Films: Columbus, Chris (1–2); Cuarón, Alfonso (3); Newell, Mike (4); Yates, David (5–8). The Harry Potter Collection. (2001-2011 Film Series). Books: Rowling, J.K.. Harry Potter.(1997-2007 Book Series) 
  7. In novular form: Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. (2006 Book). The unfortunate film version: Forster, Marc. World War Z. (2013 Film) 
  8. Brooks, Max. The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. (2003 Book) 
  9. This is gone into further in my next book and will be up as part of the *What is Rhetoric? Series when I have that part ready. 
  10. Preparation 8 — Thinking Forward vs Thinking Backward | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
Series Navigation<< Preparation 6 — Being Over-Prepared--|--Preparation 8 — Thinking Forward vs Thinking Backward >>
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Steven Rhyse has spent a great deal of time working in many colorful variations of Maker, Marketer, and Manager on a freelance and consulting basis, doing everything from editing to art on all manner of projects. His clients range from market leading companies and startups to small business owners and individuals. Designing, planning, and implementing new media solutions to business and marketing problems tend to be his primary roles, but he regularly makes use of his strong production and teaching background. Business, Entertainment, and Technology tend to be the industries he frequents most, often finding himself in the realms of Education and Health as well. He's also found great success as a private educator servicing all of the occupations and industries he just mentioned, among many others.

He enjoys learning, making, and teaching things. Though he works internationally, he's based in the Bay Area, trained and operating by the University of California, Berkeley. He's considered a leading authority on the topic of Rhetoric.
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