Jiajia Song (Lorraine)

Prof. Tae Sung

Writing 39B

7 May 2017

Making Use of the Features of Medium

According to Marshall McLuhan, a pioneer of the study of media study, in his book

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, “The medium is the message”. By this, he

indicates that a medium itself can affect the audience not only by the content carried by the

medium but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. I agree with this idea because

each medium has its own characteristics and making use of those characteristics can intensify

the influence of the content to the audience like different versions of David Foster Wallace’s

speech do. David Foster Wallace first presented the speech on the commencement at Kenyon

College on May 21, 2005, to inspire those graduating students. At first, people only can

access this speech through the audio version of the speech. In 2009, the year after when

David Foster Wallace committed suicide, this speech published as a book by Little, Brown

and Company. After a few years later in 2013, the Glossary, a small video production

company, made a nine-minutes compressed video version of the speech, which receives more

than four million views less than one month when it first released. These two versions of the

speech indeed make this speech a big hit in the world. And this popularity cannot accomplish

without the impact that this two versions of the speech pass on to their audience. In this

paper, using the two versions of the speech as my evidence, I will argue that making use of

the characteristics of each medium helps the content that the medium carries to better reach

its audience, have them understand and get the main message that the rhetor originally wants

to convey. I will first analyze how the written version of the speech accomplish such impact

on the audience. After that, I will focus on analyzing how the video version uses its

characteristics to do so.

In the first section, I am going to explore the way how the publisher uses the

characteristics of medium-the written version of David Foster Wallace’s speech by adding

swear words and making use of typesetting to help the audience understand and effectively

convey the message.

Unlike the audio version of the speech, the written version adds some swear words into

the original script, which helps to intensify the emotion beneath the content, which can

effectively get the message out to your audience. Therefore, they are likely to understand the

content. In an actual speech, it would be offensive and informal if the speaker uses profanity.

As Lisa B. Marshall, a public speaker in the article, Can I Use Profanity in a speech or

Podcast? published on the website, Quick and Dirty Tips, suggests that “you are risking a

backlash and alienating your audience when you use swear words in a public speaking.”

Therefore, it is better not to use bad languages. However, using profanity in the written

version helps the audience easily feel the emotion that’s underlying the text and seems to be

less offensive because it is presented in the paper, not in front of people. As a result, they are

likely to get the point that the rhetor is making.

There are some examples that publishers add swear words in the book, This Is Water,

which accomplishes the effect that I previously pointed out. For instance, there is one part in

the speech about how people look at the world when they think as their “default setting”,

which is “an automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world.” Originally, in

the actual speech version, Wallace just describes the thoughts that a normal person, who has

been tortured by his work has when it seems like all the other people is in his way without

any swear words. Because this speech is for high-educated graduating students at Kenyon

College. It would be improper to use those words in such kind of a formal occasion.

However, in the written version, the publisher added swear words into it. It goes like this:

“who the fuck are all these people in my way” (77). “I cannot even get home to eat and

unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people” (78). The words like “fuck” “goddamn”

explicitly express the dissatisfaction that person has. Therefore, the audience can feel the

intensity and emotion that those words are carrying. And the readers will not think it is

impolite because these words really fit that situation. After that, the readers can continue to

read to know more about how to get rid of this dissatisfaction. So as David Foster Wallace

indicates, we need to alter our “default setting” thinking way. As a result, adding the swear

words in the written version serves as a good opportunity for the audience to know the

emotion of the content and get the main point of the rhetor.

As the other characteristics of the written version, typesetting can help the audience to

ruminate on the content and understand the main point of the rhetor. Unlike the audio version

and video, listeners need to pause for a second to think and cannot taste the content of the

speech like a reader does since the speaker goes so fast. However, a book itself gives a good

way for the readers to reflect on the content since they can stop for a moment any time when

they are reading. The typesetting of the book, This Is Water, putting one or two sentences in

one page, really makes use of this feature of a bo`ok as a medium. I also did some researches

about the readers’ perspectives toward this typesetting of the book. From the customers’

review about this book on the Amazon, one of the review wrote by ConcupusAlo writes,

“Each page consists of one sentence, and for good reason: almost every single sentence

deserves its own page. Each sentence needs time to sink in, needs plenty of time for

rumination.” From this comment, we can know that this typesetting helps readers to deeply

think about the content. There are also many other positive reviews about the typesetting of

this book. One of these reviews commented by Lee Underwood—Poet: Diamondfire also

talks about the importance of the typesetting. He writes, “Only one brilliant paragraph per

page, sometimes only a phrase, laid out rather like a poem, and reading almost like an

incredible waterfall of wisdom.” From this, we can know that it is the typesetting that helps

these readers know the wisdom of David Foster Wallace and get his main point. It is because

of making use of the specific characteristics of the written version that the book effectively

reaches the readers and help them to understand the content.

Besides, the video version of the speech impresses the audience and convey the main

message of David Foster Wallace as the written version does as I previously talk about. In the

second section, I will analyze how the video accomplish that those effect by two ways that

are characteristics of the video: putting different types of information like verbal, visual

information together; creating images for its viewers.

The first way that a video does is to combine different forms of information like the

visual, the verbal information together to get the audience’s attention and then convey the

main point to its audience. In other words, the video can accomplish all the effects that all

types of the medium like a book and audio version are able to accomplish because the

producers of videos can not only put the audio version itself but also set the scene and put

written words into the videos to emphasize the content. In this way, the audience is more

likely to pay attention to, reflect from that part of the video, finally get the main message.

This nine-minutes short video of the speech, This is Water, uses this technique a lot to

emphasize and convey the message that David Foster Wallace originally wants to send to its

audience. One of most impressive part using this technique of the video is from 6:16 to 7:01.

What the video does is to put the keywords in the video along with the speech itself, which

catches the audience’s attention. For instance, the producers took out the words like

“crowded” “hot” “slow” “love” “fellowship” and made these words appear in the audience’s

eyes as a book does. The producers did this to appeal the audience and give them a moment

to think about those words. These five written words and the background audio version of the

speech emphasize and contrast that how a different thinking way can affect people’s

perspective toward life. Without being told explicitly by the video or Wallace, the audience

can know that Wallace is trying to persuade them to change their “natural default setting”

thinking way. This technique really makes full use of the advantage of video as one of the

medium, which really helps the audience to understand and get the rhetor’s main message


The other way that a video develops is to create images, which helps the audience to

understand the content of the video and then get persuaded by the rhetor. To be specific,

videos, better compared to the text, audio version, can set scene according to the content of

the work to replicate a real world in front of the audience’ eyes. Therefore, the viewers do not

imagine what the rhetor is talking about. Everything is presented in front of them. As a result,

they can better understand the main idea of the whole video. The video version of the speech,

This Is Water, also takes the advantage of this method. For example, this video first sets a

male character who lives a daily mundane life. The video creates images for audience by

setting that he is waked by the annoying default alarm music on the phone, goes to work.

After a day of tiring working, all he wants is to have a dinner at home. Unfortunately, there is

no food in the refrigerator. He has to drive to the supermarket, however, the traffic is very

bad. In that part, the video uses a driver’s view and adds the hooks of the cars to intensify

how bad the traffic jam is. From one of the viewer’s review published on the Ashley’s IFolio,

she writes, “ Instead of having to visualize and think about the situation, everything that you

had to visualize was already put onto the screen. You can see a person’s facial expression and

what they are feeling when he’s delivering his narrative allegory . . . By visualizing the text,

the speech, it makes it appear more significant.” From this, we can know because of the

feature of the video itself as a medium, creating images and helping viewers visualize, that

the viewers can better understand what David Foster Wallace is saying in his speech and get

his point.

In conclusion, from the example of two different versions of David Foster Wallace’s

speech, we can know that making use of the specific characteristics of medium helps the

content that the medium carries to better reach its audience and then the audience can eaily

understand and get the points that the originally rhetor wants to send.

Works Cited

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. London: Sphere, 1973. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion

about Living a Compassionate Life. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.

West, Julian. “This Is Water” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube. 13 April 2017.

07 May 2017.

Marshall Lisa B. “Can I Use Profanity in a speech or Podcast?” Quick and Dirty Tips.

27 January 2014. 07 May 2017.

ASHLEY. "This Is Water – David Foster Wallace." Ashleys IFolio. N.p., n.d. Web.

07 May 2017.