Preparation 8 — Thinking Forward vs Thinking Backward

Preparation 8 — Thinking Forward vs Thinking Backward

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.

We Run into Trouble When Not Looking Ahead

It’s easiest to prepare poorly1 when we’re moving with admirable momentum, but in all of the wrong directions. Our preparation propelling us, if we don’t know what we’re doing, we’ll typically end up off course, arriving somewhere distinctly different from where we needed to go. More frequently than that, however, we crash while looking in the rearview mirror, or down at a map we’ve meticulously made when we should be looking at the road ahead.

We can

We can’t find our way if we’re always looking at a map when we should be looking forward and moving ahead

Dynamic Dialog Trumps Monotonous Monologue

In the same vein of confusing written and spoken mediums2, overly scripting things out in advance is seen by many as the peak of preparation — some of us bragging about having taken the time to do it because we don’t know any better. In practice, however, scrupulous scripts shift our focus when we perform in directions actively detrimental to our results.

Rather than making use of the moment, our attention turns partially or entirely to remembering and reciting something that isn’t at its extemporaneous best. We force ourselves to rely on one of our worst faculties — rote memory — while making it progressively obvious that we’re engaged in a preplanned monologue, not an evolving dialog. We talk not with but to those around us, having been better off if we decided to lip-sync to our own voice, which would also be frowned upon for good reason, but at least we could edit our own awkwardness out before we began.

crutchesAs I’ve written about elsewhere, speaking and writing are forms of thinking3, and as all of us can relate to, we can only do so much of that at once. If we’re constantly looking back in the moment, we lack the mental faculty needed to perform when we need it most — that very moment. As we’ll come to, extemporaneous excellence4 can be a balancing act of being scripted and spontaneous, but there’s never a point where our scripts aren’t figurative substitutes for crutches meant to help us waddle along when we’re not fully up to the Rhetorical task — assuming it’s a situation where any of us ever could be.

We can walk and chew gum, but we can’t shift the spotlight of our attention that broadly without leaving some of what we’re trying to focus on in the dark.

An ideal Rhetorical engagement is in dynamic dialog with an audience in its delivery, or as close to that in effect as we can manage. Any preparatory iterations are also best made in dialog with others, which we find occurring by necessity in collaborative works, but are still useful when making anything intended to be experienced by someone other than ourselves. This also holds true in products like television that lack their performers physically being present with an audience, products like these being collaborative by nature, and in many unexpected instances have now come close to being in dialog with their audience as well.

Part of the reason South Park5 has been so successful stems from the low production times and rapid turnarounds that have allowed it to be aired almost contemporaneously with the current events and popular discourse it satirizes.

Quick wit no longer has to wait to have a mass audience

Quick wit no longer has to wait to have a mass audience

Never before have such stimulating and fantastic mediums like animation been produced so quickly that they can approach the level of contextual relevance traditionally reserved for public speaking, TV news, and of the kind that newspapers used to thrive on with the printed word. Late night talk shows have made use of this effect for years, being comedic across the board because of how easy it is to work with topical information like that in comedic contexts. The Daily Show6 and The Colbert Report7 operated in a similar way, being far more stimulating by focusing the content on topical things themselves in the way TV news always has. In all of these environments, we find groups of people in constant dialog together leading up to recording, refining things, trying them out, and editing it all together for at times extemporaneous deliveries interspersed throughout them. Whether it’s in the form of voice actors ad libbing, talk show hosts cracking pop culture jokes on the fly, or ‘fake news’ correspondents making use of their nightclub experience as many of them are or began as standup comedians, it’s rare to find many people involved that don’t have some manner of improvisational background, and for good reason.

Programs like these rely on how stimulating it is to topically engage with an audience in person, doing their best to recreate that experience through mediated means. Creating that effect begins with the character of how everything is prepared, primarily from their collaborative creation in the form of ongoing dialogs between those involved, and further bolstered by how quickly they can engage with the lived context of their audiences in the moments they’re meant to be scene — ideally the first and at times only time they air on television. For that reason, they also have less Rhetorical longevity due to their focus on what all goes into being ‘topical’, which is a consideration that I’ve taken up elsewhere, but isn’t hard to appreciate if we look to mediums like newspapers. We consider them disposable for a reason, as there is little relevance to the grand majority of topical information in the long-term. If it had an expiration date on it, it would read “now.”

dynamic-dialogOur efforts to prepare, particularly for performances like public speaking, serve us well when they make use of and support that dynamic dialog occurring when we deliver, however. Relevance, novelty, and making better use of the lived experience that is the current context of an audience that we’re actively sharing with them are all perishable things that dramatically increase the effectiveness of any Rhetorical engagement, and with skill, can be done in ways that aren’t immediately forgotten as if flushing through our minds like mental sugar. Our primary preparatory efforts are best spent facilitating dynamic exchange with an audience, which isn’t always an intuitive thing to go about doing before we open our mouths with others to try.

Without enough Rhetorical knowledge, training, and skill, we’re as likely to stick our foot in our mouths as a mic when we get out in front of a group because our preparation has lead us to think about the wrong things in the wrong ways. As we might now expect, this leads us to get the wrong results, turning us around in mental circles as we fall apart on stage or in print.

We Can’t Look Forward While We’re Looking Backward

Done correctly, preparing in writing can be wonderful scaffolding for good work. But much like the sketches now hidden beneath great paintings, they’re meant to be painted over and improved during the final performance, not rigidly recreated so our audience can see the glory that was our previous draft.

loomis-processThis is emblematic of a distinction I teach in my Rhetoric of drawing classes that I call drawing forward — developing our work through continued, disposable iterations that build on one another — which I oppose to drawing backward — focusing our attention instead on futilely trying to preserve what would have otherwise been a useful iteration of our work to the detriment of our final results. This happens most often when transferring or adapting something from one medium to another, which necessarily occurs when one medium is used to plan and prepare for the next.

Focusing on the wrong things and in the wrong way tends to be our natural response to preparatory iteration in most Rhetorical activities, which has two main problems we’ve yet to go over. One is that it sacrifices any developments that could have been made based on our prior preparatory work, and at a time when we’re in the best position to make them — having just gone through the thinking and experimentation needed to make a better attempt based on tangible feedback, ideally in dialog with skilled fellow Rhetors or preliminary members of our audience. The other issue is that it skews our intentions by causing us to focus not on making an effective performance or product, but instead on recreating aspects of our existing efforts based largely on our perceived investment in them and our care for them as if they were our intended engagement and not an aid to it. This creates a subtle but impactful shift in mindset that deeply influences the way our efforts turn out.

aladdin-sketchWhen we animate things by hand, for example, we start off with sketches to establish the forms, masses, ideas, and Rhetorical intent, we play around and experiment further in equally rough ways that have little costs in terms of time and materials, and then the crucial step comes where we have to finalize and render what we’re drawing in a more fully realized way, usually in the form of lines inked in the blackest shade we can muster, afterwards coloring that in as appropriate in any of various ways. Though the terms and mediums over time have changed and largely gone digital in all forms of commercial illustration, the process of preparation and iteration that leads to drawings moving around in front of us to create the illusion of life has remained largely the same. Done well, in that crucial step of transforming our prior sketches and rough pencil work into a fully rendered product, we use the work we’ve already done as a guide, but we are not in any way attempting to rigidly recreate it. Our sketches are often so loose, rough, blurry, and messy that we couldn’t do that even if we’d like to. Sometimes, we intentionally keep our preparatory work so rough that we can’t get caught up in it or attached to preserving it, which is something I myself would be otherwise guilty of.

Preparatory iterations like this, often in dialog with others funding or collaborating on the final product, are necessary to effective work in what are now largely commercial art forms like animation, illustration, and graphic design. Rough and typically disposable preparatory work lets discuss and negotiate what will turn into the affect our efforts have on an audience without committing too early and too often to any particular attempt, allowing us to entertain many divergent ideas and avenues for more effective and entertaining results that come only from creating a work in dialog with ourselves and others. It allows us to circumvent to the extent we can the changes our investment and concern have on our own perception of our work. It makes the process of making corrections and changes quick, easy, and relatively painless when it’s done in cheap, crude forms before more substantive efforts are made. And it maintains an element of extemporaneity in our results by maintaining it in the methods we use to create them, which is where those elements come from if they’re to exist at all.


While we will save time and effort in working this way — whether in illustration, writing, or speaking — it also allows us to maintain proper perspective throughout the process of creation that preparation entails by focusing our attention forward on making continually better work, and not backward into the abyss of our efforts to create that work.

This concept applies more broadly as thinking forward and thinking backward in all things Rhetorical that we develop over continued iterations using many means and methods. We do well to replace ‘thinking’ with whatever particular process we’re talking about in service to understanding that, but in Rhetoric, they’re all going to be instances of thinking, the main difference being what medium it occurs in and the context in which it plays out3.

Speaking backward as so many of us tend to do when we prepare is a wonderful way to sound stiff, wordy, and inauthentic because — in doing what we awkwardly do in grade school when reading the words of others aloud that were written for another context — we are being stiff, wordy, and inauthentic. That isn’t what authentic engagement with one another is like, so it would be strange if it suddenly began looking or feeling like it were. The words we’re reading when we speak backward may as well not be our own because they were usually written in another language by virtue of their being created in another medium, and by an earlier us that wasn’t standing in the shoes we’re shaking in now because we know something about our delivery is ‘off’.

We can write things so that they can be read and work well as speech, but we have to appreciate the differences between the two Rhetorics in order to do that. Most of us have yet to realize there are Rhetorics to either one, or that Rhetoric is a word.

We Balance Scripts and Spontaneity under Scrutiny

howard-screamMany great examples of using written words to facilitate spoken ones are found political speeches, where what we say orally and in the moment will be subject to immense adversarial scrutiny as if it were written to fall into the peer-reviewed annuls of history thereafter. It’s also something to sympathize with the next time we criticize a politician for being dumb enough to say something so easy to pick on after the fact like so many screaming Howard Deans. How often do we intend what we say to be read, discussed, and dissected by innumerable angry masses that are hell-bent on disagreeing with us regardless of what’s said, and played in an out-of-context loop on international TV as a convenient punchline?

Having things sufficiently planned out in advance in those Rhetorically temperamental situations, usually to the word, isn’t typically feasible without scripting things, even if we’re acting as our own scribes. When they pertain to delicate, nuanced, and controversial topics, not writing things out in advance of saying them — in whole or in part — is a great way to give our opponents ample ammunition to shoot us down. And there are best practices for doing that — few of which are intuitive if we don’t have Rhetorical knowledge, skill, practice, and experience under our belts.

At first glance, it would appear that we wouldn’t have to deal with that as Rhetors if it weren’t for the specialized nature of the context political engagements occur in. When we have more experience, however, we find that all contexts of engaging with an audience involve relationship dynamics which extend well after our mouths have been shut, and begin well before we ever get on stage, entering into the realm of our preparatory concerns if we’re to say anything efficient and effective to our cause.

Because of that, a lot of the best preparation occurs in building relationships prior to ever opening our mouths. Relationships impact our success in anything we attempt involving Rhetoric, whether they’re between buyers, sellers, students, teachers, loved ones, or strangers on an individual or mass scale8. jfkBy the time most politicians go up to speak, ideally, they’ve already won over their audience, being judged not by foes but by family, friends, and peers. On the podium itself, they’re mostly rallying the troops they’ve already won, dropping a few sound-bites intended to be quoted favorably by the press, and trying not to say or do anything stupid. In front of a now ubiquitous and unforgiving public eye that would love nothing more than to have something new to put on YouTube, the latter is becoming an art in itself, most of us choosing to err on the side of being dull rather than risk being so bold that we blow our career out of the water with our big mouths. Done well by skilled politicians, the rallying that occurs prior to delivering is an integral part of their preparation, and it directly guides and informs what they need to say from there, as well as how they should go about saying it.

‘Scripting’ all or some of our spontaneity is a useful tool when the number of relationships we’re engaging with is too great to manage in any meaningful way in advance. Many of us never script things out to avoid the effects of thinking backwards, and it does work well to that end. Ideally, we speak and write with extemporaneous excellence4, the effects of which are deeply felt and impactful. Some Rhetorical tasks, however, particularly in the world of mass media when we’re trying to leverage mass numbers of deliberately volatile relationships to tip in our political favor, are almost insurmountable without lots of training, fellow collaborators in the form of expert guidance, feedback, and advisors, or ample amounts of external aid. If we had to deal with those hurdles ages ago, it’s unlikely anything would have ever been said worth recording. This situation has in part contributed to ‘political speak’ coming to refer to Rhetoric that’s intentionally empty and devoid of content because it’s safer to say veiled versions of ‘nothing’ than it is to be eaten alive for having the genuine moments of awkwardness, stupidity, and context-sensitive phrasing we all share if we’re being honest. Other reasons have to do with the nature of the mediums themselves we now conduct politics in, which I’ve covered elsewhere regarding the Rhetoric of news9.

fake-smileWe criticize each other for looking like we’re reading from a teleprompter because we innately feel that’s akin to ‘cheating’, feeling ‘phony’ and ‘inauthentic’, making ample efforts to avoid giving the appearance of doing so in our production methods, the invention of teleprompters presenting words over a camera lens being only one example. We feel that way about it because it is inauthentic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t at times still prudent given the Rhetorical engagements we find ourselves in, and the limitations inherent to all of us. If we leverage those aids too much, however, we get turned around into speaking backwards in front of an audience, making our role as Rhetor a continual balancing act of being scripted and spontaneous in highly technical and adversarial situations like these. Failing to do so damages the relationships involved as well as our Rhetoric, the effect of the former itself being a large part of our Rhetoric.

The more scrutiny we’re under, the more of what we say needs to be written, if only to be able to scrutinize it in advanced ourselves, and in the form it’ll be most often turned into when under fire in public discourse in print or online. It’s also best constructed as if dictating a private speech to an imagined audience standing in for the intended one, getting feedback from people with the Rhetorical expertise to give constructive advice that goes beyond colorful variations of ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. We often do better to limit the scripting to key points and phrases to either include or avoid, as well as how best to dodge likely obstacles — such as loaded questions or touchy topics — to avoid speaking backward when we’re handed the mic. Because we’re being judged based on how well we can survive carefully considered and written attacks composed with ample time and collaboration later on, we have to put a measure of that effort into our presentation as a defense. If that level of preparation isn’t needed for a political speech of any import, our speaking likely isn’t either. Hearkening back to the Rhetorical use of silence, we should smile and nod, if we show up at all.

All of us are affected by the Rhetoric of politics10, whether or not we’re directly involved in making it. There are clearly right and wrong ways of preparing present in the field, however, Rhetoric separating them by both degree and kind, hinging on the direction our thinking is headed in the moments we deliver, balanced between looking ahead and behind.

Scripts Help When We Don’t Know What We’re Saying but Are Obligated to Say Something

When we don’t know what we’re saying or how to say it, we’d normally do well to remain silent. Sometimes we know what we want to say, but we literally lack the words to know how to say it in a certain context, however. In situations like these where a duty exists to speak despite our present abilities, we either hire help to speak for us, or we support ourselves almost entirely with scripts if we’re to say anything ourselves, usually still made in conjunction with expert guidance in the Rhetoric of something we’re not equipped to employ.

language-treeSpeaking in a language still foreign to us is a common occurrence of this. As I’ve written elsewhere, translation is rightly called adaptation11, translation happening when we make works we feel are Rhetorically equivalent, not precisely analogous, once we move beyond the realm of isolated nouns better conveyed with imagery. That’s a limitation of languages and mediums that we all live with, which we either work with or against in our efforts to speak in a tongue not yet our own. It takes a great deal of time, immersion, and experience to be able to speak fluently in any medium, which is distinct from speaking well. Accruing that in time to engage with an audience isn’t always in the cards if the game we’re playing involves using a deck we don’t have all the suits to. Lacking Rhetorical legs in situations like these, we need crutches in the form of a script if we’re to walk at all. And we need help from an effective wielder of a medium to craft them together.

It’s obvious to us that we need help when we don’t speak a language distinct from our own, but the same considerations go on in specialized contexts where we employ seemingly the same words, only with intentions, meanings, and procedures entirely foreign to us. We do deceptively poorly when we engage in something superficially similar, but Rhetorically different than something we’re already familiar with.

Law is its own language, complete with its own Rhetoric12. We conduct it using words that appear common to other realms, but in their specialized legal context, are invested with special meaning that isn’t found elsewhere, and employed in a rule-governed manner that we need to be well versed in if we’re to be permitted to play along. We use the same words in law as we do elsewhere, but their Rhetoric is distinct. That’s not something we’re used to thinking about, however, so we assume lawyers are all out to get us and talk around in circles using funny phrases because they hate us. Some of them certainly do, but that’s not how they express it — their hatred saved for billable bathroom breaks.

Lacking fluency in legal Rhetoric, most of what we will say and do will make us sound like idiots because relative to the next context we’re employing our foreign Rhetoric in, we’re speaking and acting as idiots. This also holds true in the other direction when we speak ‘legalese’ in areas it isn’t native to or welcome. law-book-gavelThough a lot of law is conducted out loud between parties during the litigation process or in court, law itself is primarily conducted in writing, whether we’re referring to past rulings, laws themselves, contracts, or artifacts of the process such as legal briefs. If it weren’t, there’d be nothing to refer to between parties that wasn’t ephemeral, and we’d have to rely on whose memory seemed more convincing or authoritative. Because of that, the Rhetorical character of what’s said aloud is closer to ‘oral text’, giving it an added consideration we’re not used to making if we’re not used to practicing law. Extemporaneous excellence in law still requires us to think on our feet at times, but various forms of ‘scripting’ are needed to leverage as big a body of law as we can muster with as much precision as is prudent to any individual case worth a measure of our time and attention. There’s a reason ‘lawyer’ is referred to as a profession, not a hobby, and one that involves necessary specialization. What we engage with in law is always primarily other people, but we do so as mediated through what at this point are innumerable bodies of text directly addressing one in an ongoing legal conversation whose Rhetoric is the rules of the game deciding the fates of all involved.

Lawyers are hired to speak with us and on our behalf, but the Rhetorical considerations involved are common to most everything we Rhetorically ‘do’ — including meetings and management.

There are plenty of moments where our task is to regurgitate written material to a group by necessity — such as going over accounting numbers in groups and plans of attack for the day — but the efficient solution to these situations is the same as most meetings, in that we’re better off not having them. When we can forward and access things from wherever we are, keeping an open information base between parties does away with the Rhetorical need to recreate one in person through less efficient means, which also holds true for many written things like emails. One of the ironies of the information age is that most of us are drowning in things like emails and texts and phone calls when the same technology allowing them to invade our lives can also in most cases automate the needless bulk of them away.

language-kidIn all of these cases, being more scripted than spontaneous is at times needed, but it’s useful to keep in mind that the reason for that is because it helps mitigate our own limitations, not because it’s the best way to do things. The best way to present in a language we don’t know is to learn the language and know it. The best way to argue on behalf of a client in law is to know the law inside out and speak with impeccable purpose when it’s productive to say something at all. And the best way to CC someone on an email is to give them access to a shared resource negating their need to be included in the first place. We necessarily won’t be up to the task on that in everything we Rhetorically do, however, instead being as extemporaneous as we can be, even if our current knowledge and skills necessitate that being very little. At an extreme, our preparation is most productive when it leads us to accept that we need to hire help to speak for us when we find we’re ill equipped to do anything else effectively.

Our preparation at times like these is identifying and dealing with these practical problems while relegating the negative effects of that along the way with Rhetorical savvy.

Situations like these are still best dealt with by avoiding or remedying the unfavorable circumstances of that situation, all else making up for the fact we haven’t. The better part of preparation is cultivating the context for good Rhetoric when we’re called upon to deliver, which an overly narrow focus on our preparatory efforts gets in the way of, scripted or otherwise.

We Can Rhetorically Fake Authenticity, but It’s Easier Not To

authenticThe reason the best actors often ad lib — contemporary comedic films often being entirely improvised when it comes to the specific dialog used in each scene — is that there really isn’t any way to make our dialog match our temperament and the moment other than to have it be spawned by our temperament in the moment. One key to understanding how to be not only good but great with Rhetoric is found in realizing that the best way to appear a certain way, such as appearing authentic, is to actually be authentic. Doing our best involves developing the knowledge and skills of applying what that entails. Unfortunately, this is rarely intuitive, or we’d all being doing it by default. Cultivating the contexts we perform in are as much a part of preparation as actually performing, all while keeping our thinking forward, and scripting our spontaneity only when the circumstances require it, ideally with expert guidance so we end up somewhere we’d like to be as a reward for our efforts.

One way to be well received is to try really, really hard for a good long while to come up with what we believe are the perfect combination of words that will magically affect our audience like a spell — bending them to our will, which is hopefully a positive one. Another is finding eager listeners, and lacking them, learning to form them. Preparation paves the way to both, but the processes by which we prepare can also get in the way of either if we don’t know what we’re doing, and lacking that experiential know-how, further fail to get help. Whether it’s for a speech or a film or a buyer or product launch, one way of preparing is clearly superior to another, all involving a balancing act between forces that rarely ever reconcile. One of the reasons preparation is challenging is that many of the things we can and will need to do to prepare can and will hinder our results if done to the wrong extents or in the wrong ways. This makes it not a matter of avoiding the minefields on our way to good results, but always ever learning to navigate our way straight through them to the success that waits on the other side. Knowledge, skill, and experience with Rhetoric is what allows us to plot that treacherous course, and what lets us make it out alive.

Understanding that helps bolster our beliefs about how effective our preparation has been and will be. Our beliefs matter, and are a foundational part of preparation itself13.

Footnotes, References, and Citations

  1. Preparation 7 — We Can and Do Prepare Poorly | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  2. Preparation 7 — We Can and Do Prepare Poorly — Speaking Isn’t Writing, Writing Isn’t Speaking | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  3. A brief summary of some of what I’ve written elsewhere will be available in my next book, as well as part of the What is Rhetoric? Series adapted from it, which I’ll link once it’s up. 
  4. Preparation 11 — The Best Preparation Is Staying in Practice — Extemporaneous Excellence | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  5. Parker, Trey; Stone, Matt. South Park. (1997-Present TV Series) 
  6. Steward, Jon. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (1999–2015 TV News and Talk Show Series) 
  7. Colbert, Stephen. The Colbert Report. (2005-2015 TV News and Talk Show Series) 
  8. An example I often give of this is: If Hitler discovered the cure for cancer, we’d have been hard pressed to listen. 
  9. This is in reference to a section on news mediums from my next book, which will be featured in an adaptation as part of the What is Rhetoric? Series, which I’ll link when it’s up. 
  10. What is Rhetoric? — It’s Politics | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  11. 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. 
  12. What is Rhetoric? Part 4 — It’s Law | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  13. Preparation 9 — Our Beliefs about Our Preparation Are Part of Our Preparation | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
Series Navigation<< Preparation 7 — We Can and Do Prepare Poorly--|--Preparation 9 — Our Beliefs about Our Preparation Are Part of Our Preparation >>
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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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