This is the printable version of an article from Infernal Ramblings (infernalramblings.com). The original web-optimised article is also available.

Thinking Aloud

When it comes to communicating their thoughts, many people simply aren't able to think aloud. Yet thinking aloud is the key to presenting an argument in a cogent and natural-sounding manner. Substituting a memorised script for an actual understanding of the problem is a poor solution.

Written by johnleemk on 12:57:43 pm Apr 3, 2007.

One problem I've noticed with many inexperienced writers, especially Malaysian ones, is that they don't think aloud. When they write, they don't write naturally. They don't dare write what's on their mind.

Obviously bloggers and online commentators are exempt from this otherwise near set-in-iron rule. Most people who blog either learn how to think aloud when they write, or they stop blogging altogether once they find it too difficult to write — which isn't very surprising, since writing is immensely difficult when you aren't thinking.

One might suppose that thinking aloud is a luxury that only bloggers have. After all, we are not subject to editorial constraints. But I suspect that even published authors think aloud at the draft phase — and then they just refine their drafts.

Works that were not written by someone thinking aloud are often quite obvious. They are marked by either a clear lack of understanding about the subject, their boring nature, or both. When you are not writing what you think, but rather what you think you are supposed to write, your work comes off as stilted, unnatural, and often illogical.

A Malaysian example might be, for instance, the blathering tripe our papers put out in their coverage of "lifestyle" issues such as fashion or movies. The journalists in charge of covering these areas are obviously writing what they have been told to write, rather than what they actually think. Their prose singing the praises of this or that is so painfully unnatural that it's cringe-inducing.

Examinations are also an excellent example of where people fail to think aloud. The instinctive response to an examination question is to attempt to grasp what the question is looking for, and then vomit all the related material out onto paper.

The result is often painfully hilarious. At a law examination last year, many of my classmates thought a question asking them whether judges were free to make law through how they interpret statutes was a question on judicial independence, simply because of the word "free". Someone who reads the question in a natural manner and writes his response thinking aloud would naturally gravitate towards an answer on statutory interpretation, even if he was initially inclined towards writing on judicial independence.

The beauty of thinking aloud is that you don't have any pre-existing conclusions. You don't know the answer, but you're on the road to finding it. You examine what comes naturally to you through the thought process, and somehow, at the end, you manage to tie everything up together and reach a conclusion. (Assuming, of course, that you are disciplined enough to marshal the thought process correctly, rather than digressing into trivialities.)

The purpose of writing is to communicate. When we engage in normal conversation, we really often do think aloud. But for some reason, when it comes to writing, many of us switch our brains off and try to think instead about what we are expected to write, rather than simply communicating what we think. Even in public speaking, this is frighteningly common.

This last Sunday, my college was the venue for the national-level LawAsia mooting competition. The winning college would represent Malaysia at the LawAsia moot in Hong Kong. As one of the coolies for my college's Law Society, I spent the whole day there, and watched (I think) at least half of the moots.

In almost all of them, it was painfully clear that most of the mooters had memorised their scripted speeches without actually understanding the moot problem they had been set. Instead of thinking aloud when they spoke, they were regurgitating what they thought they had to say.

When the judges asked them questions, they crumbled to pieces. It was very obvious that not many of them were acquainted with the facts of the case they were arguing, or with the points of law they were supposed to be debating. Most of those who froze up at a question either answered by stating something not given in the facts of the case, or by mindlessly repeating what they had already said! I daresay that only one mooter at all really understood the case, and thought aloud when she spoke. It's no surprise that she was named the best mooter.

At the end of the moot, one of the organisers from the Bar Council noted as much, when he told the mooters that one of the best phrases to use in a moot is "I wonder if". When you think aloud, if you have understood and grasped your facts correctly, you will present a much more convincing and natural-sounding argument.

The purpose of any form of communication is to convey our thoughts to others. But depressingly, not many people seem to be able of thinking aloud when they write or speak in a formal setting. If you are afraid of thinking aloud because you fear you will trip up without a memorised script, it's probably because you haven't understood the problem you are faced with.

Don't hide behind a set script. Understand your problem, and when you write or speak, think aloud about how you would go about solving this problem. You will inexorably arrive at a surprisingly pleasing answer.