I spend a lot of my time rehearsing speeches and conversations. It can be a highly distracting and frustratingly immersive exercise – especially since in many cases it seems more compulsion than desire that drives me to do it – yet, ultimately, I consider it to be a highly beneficial way of preparing for social situations, arguments, and, indeed, lessons.
When I say rehearsing, I don’t mean sitting down with a written text and practising and memorising the words, but rather running through a simulated conversation or lecture in my head, as though I were engaged in a conversation or addressing an audience. I do this all the time – walking down the street, running, sitting on the train and bus, lying in bed, eating, showering, sitting on the toilet – you name it, I’m almost always rehearsing a conversation or speech when my mind isn’t actively engaged with another task.
It often begins with rethinking a conversation I’ve already had or a lesson I’ve taught and determining how I might have better made a certain point or explained something. In this case I’ll review the words I used at the time – I have an uncanny knack of recalling the exact phrasing – and determine what techniques, language, vocabulary, tone or structure would have better served the purpose. Sadly, the ability to recall conversations so accurately means that I frequently feel the profound embarrassment at past-howlers when I revisit them. It is also worth pointing out, especially for the sake of those who have experienced my absent-mindedness, that recall is based largely on level of engagement at the time. Apologies, therefore, for those occasions when I have not actively listened.
On rare cases where I think I nailed something the first time around – a line of reasoning, an explanation, a means of negotiating a difficult conversation – I’ll reward myself by recalling the conversation / lecture / speech and making note of what made it successful, impactful or persuasive, in case I might need to deploy a similar argument etc. in future. I also just plain enjoy language, and it is pleasing to feel that I produced something persuasive, effective, and, ideally, stylistically entertaining ; )
Another type of conversation rehearsal involves running through a hypothetical situation and allowing the conversation to play out. This does not merely include considering my own words, but also how my interlocutor might respond and how I might adjust my line of reasoning according to their various responses. These conversations needn’t be imminent, relevant or even likely to happen and could deal with past, present or future circumstances, which might be possible or otherwise.
I have often imagined conversations with my father; thinking of the things I might say to him and how he might reply, then running over and over my choice of words in this hypothetical so that my point is made as clearly, eloquently and sympathetically as possible. This might be a case of re-hashing a past dispute or imagining conversations that should have taken place, but never did. Often the desire to run through such hypothetical conversation is motivated by feelings of frustration or regret, yet even when I imagine angry conversations, I am inclined to focus on a reasoned line, not devoid of emotion by any means, but not overwhelmed by it. In my rehearsals, I’m always reasonable and considerate, even when angry, though this does not necessarily reflect how I behave in reality.
Another common form of rehearsal is for imagined instances of public speaking or lecturing. This could be on any topic – the importance of keeping the state secular; the lack of media diversity in Australia; the joys of photography; the pleasing nature of good concrete formwork… – literally, anything. When I go running, I often compose lectures on the significance of the music I am listening to – provided it is significant. Recently I found myself composing a lecture on the importance of Midnight Oil in the canon of Australian music, for providing both a distinctly Australian voice and vision that was not only radical in style and sentiment but also engaged so many young people in politics. The other day, the subject was “when metal was mainstream” – focussing on the popular success of bands such as Metallica / Megadeth / Guns & Roses in the late 80s, early 90s. This, perhaps inevitably, led me to consider how I might address the topic of Cold War visions of future dystopias – so prevalent in the 1980s…
The subject can, of course, be personal as well. A couple of years ago I spent some time imaging what I would say were I to make a speech at my 40th birthday, and came up with a variety of structures, angles and tones. I neither wanted nor intended to make a speech at my 40th, so the exercise might seem redundant, yet I consider it to have been useful as a means of keeping rhetorically fit. Also, narratologically speaking, it was an effective means of examining my life and putting things into context.
The benefit of rehearsing all these speeches and conversations is that should the moment finally arrive, I will feel well prepared to engage on the subject and have a line of reason or argument already prepped – including key catchphrases and ways of putting things that sound so neat you might think I rehearsed them… I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet on this front, rather to discuss the phenomenon, but it is fair to say that one of the skills I do have is being able to speak eloquently and intelligently. I firmly believe that in part, this ability comes from a life-long habit of conversation rehearsal. It is also fair to say that occasionally I lose my shit and go ape and swear and curse like a total and utter bastard and at those times, whilst I might feel the brief satisfaction of rage, I also feel the long, drawn out coda of shame in the aftermath. I can be very to the point when I’m angry – so much so that there is often no coming back from what has been said.
Either way, this conversation rehearsal has saved my butt on countless occasions, especially in relationships. When faced with a difficult emotional situation, I will spend hours and hours running through the conversation that must come and determining exactly how I must be persuasive, what points to take and what to concede, and what kind of language will be most placatory / plausible / convincing etc. The techniques follow the standard rule-book of rhetoric in many ways, so are hardly revelatory, but I certainly do recommend the benefits. Too often people go into situations unprepared and say things that cause permanent, irrevocable damage. Without rehearsing conversations, I would no doubt have been dumped much more swiftly in the past.
Rehearsal is especially good for break-ups, largely because harm-minimisation is key in this endeavour. It’s very important to be aware of the impact of even the most apparently neutral statements and how they might be received in a moment of heightened emotional intensity. Expect irrationality, expect volatility, but prepare reasonably and at least you won’t add fuel to the fire by accidentally insulting someone or lowering their self-esteem further.
Of course all this takes a degree of empathy and understanding of the other person that isn’t always available. Then again, most people fall within a recognisable range of emotional responses, so if something is going to upset most people, it’s also likely to upset the person you’re talking to. Conversations do need to be specifically tailored to the audience / interlocutor, yet a sound line of reasoning and well-thought out argument or explanation with its own internal logic is difficult to refute, and at least it gives you the benefit of having tried to be reasonable and not having said something unnecessarily inflammatory or hurtful. Of course, you won’t always get it right and might overlook something very important, but having rehearsed puts you in a better position than not having done so.
Last but perhaps not least, it is worth mentioning the conversations that take place with the inner voice. Rather like Gollum, I have lengthy arguments with myself and often subject myself to some terrible insults and accusations: “What the hell is wrong with you, dog, you useless piece of shit!?” Yet I also offer praise where praise is due, and the two voices – the good me and the bad me, tend to balance each other out. Whilst these aren’t strictly hypothetical situations I am rehearsing, and more akin to internal arguments, often it’s this good me and bad me who end up being the two characters in a hypothetical conversation. The bad me is totally immoral, insensitive and crass – the good me is disciplined, formal, polite, passionate and sensitive. These two character types make for useful actors in a Socratic-style dialogue on, let’s face it, any bloody thing you can think of.
So, to conclude, I do indeed recommend rehearsing conversations when possible. Ideally you won’t suffer from a similar compulsion to do it at all times, but it does have its benefits when faced with negotiating a tricky situation, especially one where emotions are involved.