Full steam ahead for Oracy Cambridge!

 by Professor Neil Mercer
Director, Oracy Cambridge, Hughes Hall

The conference to launched our new study centre, Oracy Cambridge, was held at Hughes Hall on the 22nd of April 2016. Ninety people attended – a capacity crowd for the Pavilion room – and it had been fully booked up well in advance. One of the main aims, which reflects the aims of the centre, was to bring together people from different professions and places of work who all shared an interest in developing the effective use of spoken communication to get things done, but who had probably not had the opportunity to discuss this common interest before. We were successful in this respect; although those from school and university education were the largest group, there were also social workers, speech therapists and lawyers, as well as representatives of the medical and business professions and from the world of performance arts. Organisations with a direct interest in developing public awareness of the importance of communications skills were also represented, such as the National Literacy Trust, The English Speaking Union, the Communication Trust and Voice 21.

In the spirit of practising what we preach, we organised a day in which formal presentations were balanced with opportunities for people to meet and talk in groups (which were selected to mix participants from different backgrounds) and to feed back ideas from their discussions to the full assembly.  The presentations were varied, including a storytelling session (by professional storyteller Ben Haggarty) as well as the more usual academic talks. One of the academic presentations, about talk in care homes by Nick Andrews of Swansea University, reduced many of the audience to sympathetic tears! The Hughes catering was, as ever, excellent and I am sure that it – and the wonderful organising skills of Rebecca Burtenshaw of the Hughes Development Office – helped create the positive atmosphere that we had hoped for.

A review of the feedback forms reassured us that our impression that people had enjoyed and valued the event was correct. And here are a few of the comments which I received by email, directly from participants, in the following week:

  • ‘First of all, a huge thank you to you and your team for organising the recent Oracy conference. It was a hugely informative day, and such a fantastic opportunity to meet so many people from different backgrounds with a clear and common interest.’
  • ‘You made me reflect on my own education and career.  During my gap year working for a small firm of family solicitors in Guildford in 1970 I now realise I learnt invaluable life oracy skills.’
  • ‘An overdue email of congratulations on the great success of the Oracy conference… As a delegate I enjoyed every aspect of the day.’
  • ‘Thanks for a really interesting day last Friday – I came away with my head buzzing with lots of ideas – and talk!’

Buoyed up by the success of our efforts, the task that now engages the centre management team is to use the contacts made and ideas generated on that day to build an ‘oracy network’ and plan a series of targeted activities and events to pursue our goals of promoting the value of oracy training/teaching in the wider world (with policy makers a particularly important audience), sharing relevant research and other practical knowledge about developing spoken communication, and organising some smaller events with more  specific aims and goals.

Welcome to Oracy Cambridge!

In the world of work, the value of effective spoken communication is almost universally recognised. Job adverts emphasise the importance of being a confident communicator, or a strong ‘team player’.

There is good reason for this. At their best, teams are creative problem-solving units, demonstrating that ‘two heads are better than one’. Research in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience now encourages the view that human intelligence is distinctively collective and that language has evolved to enable collective thinking.

We do not only use language to interact, we use it to interthink (Littleton & Mercer, 2013). Contrary to popular beliefs about ‘lone geniuses’, it is increasingly accepted that many of the major achievements of humankind have resulted from effective collaboration and communication in small groups.

Yet poor communication in workplace teams is common, and this can inhibit creative problem solving and lead to poor decision-making. The same applies to communication between staff and customers, carers and their clients, teachers and students, and many other occupational relationships.

Why is poor communication so common? The reason is that the ability to use spoken language effectively (oracy) has to be learned; and even highly intelligent people may not have learned how best to use talk to get things done.

It is also important, in a participatory democracy, that all people – not just those from privileged backgrounds – develop the ability to speak confidently in public, to present effective and persuasive arguments through speech, and to examine critically but constructively the arguments presented by others.

So it is very unfortunate that, unlike literacy and numeracy, oracy is rarely taught in schools. Government educational policy in the UK accords little value to teaching talk skills. This is also the case in most other countries.

And while educational research has shown that there are some very good ways of developing oracy skills, there is currently little contact between practitioners in school-based education and workplace training.

Oracy Cambridge aims to address this situation, by:

  • Raising awareness of the importance of effective spoken communication, and ways that it can be taught and learned, amongst policy makers and practitioners, within the UK and internationally.
  • Hosting events that bring together those concerned with understanding and developing effective spoken communication in educational settings, workplaces and communities.
  • Collecting and disseminating empirical findings and conclusions based on research that can influence education, work-related training and policy.
  • Creating and sharing practical support materials for developing and assessing oracy, in schools and workplaces.